What if my child’s anxiety is rooted in real fear?

The example that came in with this question was specifically about a child who was being bullied at school and so was afraid to go to school. Well, that’s not an anxiety disorder, that’s appropriate anxiety. If the situation is not safe then the child’s anxiety is serving its purpose. That is what anxiety is supposed to do. We cannot address anxiety unless things are safe.

So before we can face our anxiety, we need to be clear. Is this appropriate anxiety? Is it keeping us safe from something that is truly dangerous? Or is it dysfunctional anxiety? Is it keeping us from growing through our lives?

Sometimes this is an easy thing to figure out. If you have a child who is afraid of your neighbor’s friendly toothless basset hound, that’s pretty simple. A friendly toothless basset hound is unlikely to be harmful. You can definitely do some exposures to help your child confront their anxiety in that situation.

But sometimes it’s more challenging. If a child is refusing school because they are being bullied as in our questioners situation, then school is not safe. If a child is refusing school because they were once being bullied but now are safe and are protected from the bully or the bully has been removed, that’s a bit more complicated. 

It will take careful planning because we’re not just dealing with the anxiety, the child also needs support in healing from the experience of being bullied.

In other words, if a child’s anxiety is rooted in appropriate fear then we need to get them safe. It is not dysfunctional anxiety; it is protective anxiety. 

Once the child is safe, facing their anxiety in supported ways can be a truly healing experience. This might mean trauma-informed counseling. This might mean helping the child connect to resources that allow them to see themselves as someone who can access supports and advocate for themselves.This also might mean changing the environment entirely, for example, if that particular school is an overall poor fit, changing the school is not avoiding; it’s choosing a better fit. 

I want to stop for a minute and dig into this a bit more from the parents perspective. Because it’s been my experience that we, as parents, often need to address our own neglected experiences of harm in order to take care of our anxious kids. Sometimes we struggle to assess for safety because we ourselves struggle, due to our own anxiety, to know what is safe. 

I’ll use a very clear example from my own life. I have always been afraid of water. I think, as an aside, that this is related to undiagnosed and unaddressed vestibular and proprioceptive sensory issues. In any case, I am very afraid when I am in water over my head. It’s something I avoid. Because of this, it was difficult for me to watch my children swim in deep water. Heck, I can’t even watch the shipwreck scenes in Castaway. I mean it, this is a big fear of mine. Anyway, because of this I was not involved in teaching my kids to swim. I had to farm that out. I also had to sometimes walk away when they were swimming with their dad. I just can’t really assess safety in those situations. I know this about myself and I built supports that allowed my children to grow despite my own anxiety. They both love to swim. I’m never gonna like it but that’s ME. I can’t visit that on them without limiting their lives.

Like I said, that’s a very clear example. 

Other examples from my own life are more challenging. I also struggle with social anxiety and so when my kids had a social challenge it could be difficult for me to assess whether or not the situation was truly safe. I can look objectively at them swimming in a pool with an attentive adult nearby and know it’s ok even if it feels scary to me. That’s not necessarily true with social situations. 

In those cases, it took more effort to figure out what was mine and what was theirs. This became particularly salient when my daughter, who had been homeschooled all through elementary school, decided to attend middle school.

Can we just stop and acknowledge the tremendous bravery of this kid who decided her first introduction to traditional school would be in seventh grade. Needless to say, my own experience of middle school was terrible. I say that it’s needless to say because ain’t that the truth for many of us. In particular I did have a bully in eighth grade so when my daughter dealt with some mean kids, I had to work very hard to recognize that her experience was not my experience. That her school was altogether a safer, more attentive environment than mine was. That she had parents who were involved and able to coach her through difficult social situations, while my parents were simply unable to be there for me in that way. In short, I had to recognize that her anxiety was not my fear and so she could safely confront it.

I didn’t need to pull her out of school. I didn’t need to march to the guidance counselor’s office and demand that they move my child to another classroom. I didn’t need to call up the other kids’ parents and ask for a mediation. In short, while our situations had similarities, my daughter was safe. She was anxious, for sure, but she was safe. And so we were able to come up with a plan that allowed her to confront her anxiety, deal with the bully, and grow stronger through the experience.

SWhen we check for safety around our child’s anxiety — when we stop and assess are they safe? Is their anxiety protective? Or is it limiting? We also need to check in and see if we need to address our own history and take care of some old wounds.

This is all very tricky. I often say that parenting is the most triggering thing you can do. It’s hard work. It’s heavy lifting. But ultimately I believe that our experiences in parenting are opportunities for growth and healing.

I think sometimes in an effort to be clear and concise, I send the message that anxiety is always and easily cured by exposure and that’s definitely an oversimplification. Anxiety is complex, people are complex. Exposures, frankly, are also complex. Addressing anxiety must be personalized and fit not just the individual but also the individual’s family. School refusal is one situation that brings up all of this. The child’s real experience, the child’s perceived experience, the child’s temperament, goodness of fit in the school, the family’s history, the family’s needs, the surrounding culture. And on and on and on. 

There’s not one right way to do this. There’s not a singular best practice. It’s personal. If you need support, you know what to do. Reach out. Let’s talk. 

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