I really like this question because it’s complicated. The person who asked this did not ask it quite so simply. What she asked was this: “I have been listening to your podcast and took your parenting pitfalls quiz, and I scored high. I know that my child has anxiety but I don’t have an issue with helping him. You say on your podcast that you should follow your instincts. I was an anxious little girl and my mother never helped me and I don’t want to do that to my son. If I don’t have a problem with helping and it seems to help Why is this an issue?”
This is a very good question because I do think we need to follow our instincts, but I also think it’s important to stop and interrogate those instincts. What I mean is to make sure that we’re not projecting onto our kids. That is so tough. That’s what I mean about this being deep work.
.One of the things I learned early on in my career working with kids is that it is important to have a developmental context in parenting decisions. We need to understand what is typical so that our expectations will be realistic. And when I say expectations, I mean like understanding that a two-year-old can’t be left alone in a bath, but also understanding that an eight-year-old needs to be able to separate from their parents. An 8-year old who is struggling to separate from a parent is not bad, they are not behind, they don’t have bad parents — but they do need help. Because it is a reasonable expectation developmentally for a neurotypical child to be able to separate from their parents. And it’s also a reasonable expectation for many neurodiverse kids, too. It can be more complicated for those neurodiverse children — we need to step back and see what else might be going on — but if we start with the belief that our children can separate but may need help, that opens us up to figuring out the help.
This is different from saying, “They SHOULD do it and we need to MAKE them.” Ok, I want to be clear about that. We’re saying, “This is appropriate for them developmentally and we need to figure out how to help them grow into it.”
That also means that we’re thinking of it as a process with steps and a trajectory and many little goals along the way.
When there is reluctance either on a parents’ part or a child’s part, I think it helps to slow it down. Let’s figure out what’s getting in the way and figure out how to address those obstacles, whatever they are.
Going back to the question where the parent isn’t wanting to step out of the parenting pitfalls, I’m seeing the parents’ obstacles but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some for their child, too. Remember parenting is a relationship and it’s shaped by the participants in the relationship. Which means that even if the mom is saying it’s me, it’s all me, I like helping, I want to help, I’m not going to assume it is in fact all hers.
Let me tell you more about reluctant parents in the anxious relationship.
I see lots of reluctant parents. And I think sometimes my job is less about trying to shove people through a program and more about being a step along the way as people figure it out. The fact that this person is listening to my podcast tells me that she is thinking about this. She is thinking about child anxiety and how to help her child. Per her own words, she’s not ready to change yet but she might be getting there.
Reluctance can happen for lots of reasons, often more than one. But some of the most common I see are:
First: Parents who were themselves anxious as kids and who didn’t feel well supported as kids and so are hypersensitive to their own children’s distress.
Now I’ve said before that my population of parents tend to be gentle parents, respectful parents, conscious parents — you know, people who are trying to really be there for their kids. And many of us come to this style of parenting because we want to do things differently than our own parents did. We forget that our children are already growing up in a more supportive context and so their distress does not look like our distress. The mom who wrote me for the podcast says her mom didn’t help her. But she does help her son, which means she can lovingly pull back on the help especially if she explains to her son what’s happening. That’s part of the program. You are informing your kids. That doesn’t look the same as a parent just NOT helping. Ok.
The second most common reason is an intense kid. This is a child whose anxiety is big, whose behavior may be even bigger. A child who gets very upset sometimes very disruptive and the parents are trying to figure out how to manage that behavior and often they do this by accommodating the anxiety. That takes care but is not insurmountable, not at all. Having a structured, clear plan and extra support makes a huge difference. But man, I get it. I get why parents are reluctant when they know that pulling back on the pitfalls is going to mean meltdowns.
And the third most common reason parents are reluctant is a bit of both. They’re sensitive and intense, their child is sensitive and intense. The anxiety is strong for both the parent and the child. And that is THE most common reason people reach out to me. That’s the parent most likely to contact me about the program is having a bit of both. And yes, it’s difficult and it might take time before that parent is really motivated to change and boy do I get it.
If they are not ready to do the whole program, they can still benefit by joining it and starting the exploration. I actually have a course in child Anxiety Support that’s all about change and it honors this. It honors that we need to come to change on our own time and in our own way. Understanding that can help us as we move forward. We can learn about anxiety, we can spend our time in the CBT Family part of the course, just kind of browsing the activities there and seeing if any of them interest us or might interest our child. We can read through Strong Kids Strong Families and directly confront that resistance. Talk it out with me, argue with me, play around with how approaching it could look. There’s lots of time to stop and observe what’s happening with new understanding.
The thing about parenting an anxious child is that it takes a paradigm shift to start addressing the anxiety. Sometimes you can’t do things differently until you have that shift and sometimes you need to have that shift before you can do things differently. It’s not better to do it one way or the other, you just start wherever you can.
Basically what I’m saying is that growth is not and should not necessarily be a straight line. And here I want to speak directly to that mom who wrote me. And I want to say to her, I’m so glad that you’re listening and that you reached out. I know you care deeply about your son and you’re working hard to provide for him in a way that you were not provided for. That’s impressive. If you ever want some support as you figure out next steps, let me know.