What do I do when my child doesn’t want to deal with their anxiety?

This is a really great question because a whole lot of us — not just children — don’t want to deal with our anxiety. We may not realize our anxiety is even a problem. We might not even know that we HAVE anxiety. We might think that this is just the way that we function.

That wouldn’t be an issue if our anxiety only impacted us. But what we know from the research is that those of us with anxiety that is left unaddressed or untreated tend to pull on our loved ones in ways that hep us avoid the things that make us anxious.

In fact, when you dig into the scientific literature around anxiety accommodations, which is the term for the pitfalls we get stuck in with our kids, you’ll see that many of those studies were looking at accommodations within couples particularly around OCD. This is all to say that anxiety is an issue in relationships and child anxiety is always a family systems issue.

This can be confusing because we are seeing our child struggle with this problem and so of course we say, “I need to intervene with my child. I need my child to change.”

But actually we need to change.

That’s good news. It may feel like rotten news like, “I’m screwing up” but you’re not screwing up. It’s just how anxiety plays out. 

Think of it this way. If you have a child who is allergic to eggs and you’re the person who does the grocery shopping, menu planning, snack providing, you are going to have to figure out eggs. You’re going to not buy eggs, you’re not going to make omelets for your child, you’re going to need to get that recipe for wacky cake, which is the cake that uses vinegar and baking powder for leavening so that you don’t need eggs. That’s because your child may be the one with allergies, but you are the adult who actually controls the general overall function of how the house eats.

Maybe that’s not such a great example since with allergies avoidance is the right thing to do and in anxiety it is NOT the right thing to do.

Oh well, I hope you get my point.

So it doesn’t matter if your child doesn’t want to deal with their anxiety because we are going to focus on our own behavior.

It is both easy and difficult to make this shift. It’s easy because the only person we have to deal with is ourselves. We get to unpack our often complicated feelings about our child’s anxiety, to address our worries about their worries, and to learn the tools we’d like to pass onto our children. It’s difficult because we care a lot about how our kids are doing. It’s challenging to unhook ourselves from our want for things to be easier for them. And it’s difficult because letting go of attachment to results can feel neglectful. 

What we need to remember is that over attention to our child’s anxiety is what is keeping us stuck. Wrapping our family functioning around their functioning tends to be insidious. It creeps up on us, it has deep roots. Often I talk to families who say, “No, we are not stuck. We are ok. We are doing the things we need to function and they’ll point to one particular challenge. One particular big emotion behavior.” But it’s’ very much an iceberg kind of thing where that one particular behavior or problem is just the one we’re seeing but there are many more that the family has just become accustomed to.

It takes time to pull back and fully consider the ways we — the parents — have become trapped in our child’s anxiety. And then when we start to realize it, we may find ourselves feeling defensive and wanting to explain why it’s important that we do those things and why we need our child to change. 

We might feel we can’t shift until our child agrees to work on their anxiety because we feel so tangled up in it. 

If you feel like you can’t make a move until you have your child’s buy in, until they are willing to deal with their anxiety, that tells me right there that you’re stuck in Pitfalls. No shame there. 89 to 97% of all parents of anxious kids — depending on which study you read, some say 95 to 99% – are stuck in pitfalls. You’re in good company. But we are the ones who are stuck so we are the ones who will need to get unstuck.

If you feel super tangled, if you feel super stuck, if you feel like there is no way you can work on this without working on your child, that’s all right. It means that you’ll probably need to go slower as you learn more about child anxiety and more about how to uncover and address the ways you are stuck. This isn’t a one and done deal. This is a process and it takes time. But once you’ve begun it and you really understand it, and you know how to work your way through it, you will never be that stuck again because you’ll be able to apply and reapply what you’ve learned every time you look around and say, Dang, we’re here again.

It’s not the getting stuck that’s the problem — any of us with anxious loved ones will get stuck now and then — it’s recognizing it and knowing how to get unstuck. When we do that, our loved ones will get unstuck, too. That’s just how it works. That’s just how family systems work. You change and that creates change in the system, which requires change from other members. This is essentially the core of child anxiety treatment. The rest is about learning skills and bringing them to your family. You can do that. Even if your child doesn’t really want you to.

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