Dayna Sharp, LCSW
Kind and Firm: Parenting Your Anxious Child
Raising a child with Too Much Anxiety can be challenging. At times, our kids can seem so vulnerable, and their anxieties can tap into our own anxieties, which leaves us feeling vulnerable and sometimes even feeling helpless to support our kids. At other times, our kids Anxiety might push them to act out aggressively, leaving parents to wonder "What am I doing wrong?", or even to respond to our children in a punitive manner, only making the Anxiety stronger.
In short, kids with Anxiety often leave parents feeling like they're lost without a map.
So, I offer a fairly simple guideline, based in Positive Parenting. Though it will not solve all the world's problems, it will help you to feel grounded, directed and help you to respond to your child more effectively.
How and Why It Works
Maybe your child is worried about sleeping alone. He is afraid that a killer clown is going to ax his way into his bedroom and can't fall asleep. Tears are falling, his body is shaking, and he wants to sleep in your bed. "Please, just for tonight", he says. He seems so upset, for a moment you consider it. After all, you want to be kind. While some families choose to sleep together, and while it feels good to cuddle, if you're considering sleeping together to avoid Anxiety--don't do it! Avoiding Anxiety only makes it stronger!
Instead of being "Kind", and allowing Anxiety to grow stronger, aim to respond in a "Kind and Firm" manner. "I love you, AND I see that you're Anxiety is acting up, AND you are going to sleep in your own bed tonight". Kind and firm means validating, sticking to your boundaries, and also helping your child to learn ways to cope. You might follow in this example by asking "What can you do to quiet your Anxiety?".
When your child is able to go to sleep in spite of their anxiety, they learn that they can cope with and eventually master difficult feelings. Their Anxiety shrinks. Kind and Firm. It's a simple mantra, it's not always easy to carry out, but it works.
Your daughter says, "Mom, I just can't go to school today. My teacher hates me... and besides, my stomach hurts". She is suddenly bent over grabbing her stomach. You might have the urge to reassure, "Your teacher doesn't hate you...", but on second thought that will be a bottomless pit of an argument--there's no winning here. As the moments pass, she really looks like her stomach hurts. You feel bad. Maybe you should let her stay home, that's the Kind thing to do. But wait! You remember that avoidance only makes Anxiety stronger, and if she stays home today, it will be just as bad, if not worse tomorrow! You suddenly remember "KInd and Firm". "I love you, AND I know that school is hard for you. I see your Anxiety is making your stomach hurt...AND we are going to school". "Let's figure out some ways together that we can make your Anxiety quiet down so that you'll feel better on the way", you add.
Practicing Kind and Firm won't be easy at first. Kids are afraid of their Anxiety, and they will do whatever it takes to avoid it. But if you can respond with Kind and Firm consistently, they will respond. And the predictability of your response is also reassuring--predictability, consistency and routine all make Anxiety smaller. Kind and Firm also messages to your kids that you're not afraid of their Anxiety--which also helps kids feel more safe. Of course, Kind and Firm must go along with teaching kids about their feelings, so that they understand what's happening to them when they feel Anxiety--that it's uncomfortable, but not harmful.
Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help you and your family feel more secure by using techniques like "Kind and Firm" among others.
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