What a ridiculous blog post, some of you may be thinking. What to do when my child seeks reassurance? I reassure them, of course! Well, yes, that does work with many children, but when your child struggles with Anxiety, reassuring often doesn't help, can actually make Anxiety and Fear stronger, and can become an exhausting bottomless pit for caregivers.
"Mom, a clown is going to climb in my window with an ax, and I can't sleep".
"There's no such thing as clowns, dear. I promise. Now it's time to go to sleep"
"Okay, Mom"--says rarely any kid, ever. Some kids will sit with their fear, which will dissipate as they grow more drowsy, and fall asleep. But when kids live with Anxiety, the Fears rarely dissipate on their own--the child won't become drowsy because their bodies are coursing with stress hormones, and so this interchange is likely to go on and on.
"Dad, I have a test tomorrow, and I'm going to fail!".
"You studied hard for the test, I'm sure you will do great!".
Again, some kids may accept that reassurance. But kids who live with Anxiety may continue to worry. "What if I forgot to study something? OMG, I left one of my worksheets at school. Where is that worksheet?" And it goes on, escalating as the Anxiety becomes Fear or even Panic.
Why Reassurance Doesn't Work
Of course, it feels good for kids when their caregivers reassure them, even if for a second. And it also feels good to for caregivers to reassure their children. But the problem is, the feel good feelings don't last when Anxiety is around. If your child(ren) is living with an Anxiety "bully", this bully is going to be stronger than whatever reassurance you have to offer. Unfortunately, your best reassurance is just not going to resolve their Anxieties and Fears. In these moments, instead of speaking directly to whatever the Worry is about, try to hear the music underneath the words.
The Music Underneath the Words
It's not really about a clown, or the test...it's about the Anxiety and Fear behind them. And reassurance actually just strengthens the Anxiety, because it keeps the "problem"--the clown or the test--in the forefront of the child's mind. What we want to do as caregivers is to help children understand the real problem: their Anxiety bully.
What To Do:
Let your child know ahead of time that you are not going to reassure them anymore. Explain to them that reassurance may feel like it's a good thing, it actually just makes Anxiety stronger--the real problem is the Anxiety bully. And you are going to help your child "dethrone" the bully. Tell your child that the way you are going to do that is by pointing out the presence of the Anxiety bully during the times when your child is worrying. Emphasize that you are not going to talk about the clown, or the test, but that you will help with the bully.
In the moments of your child's Anxiety, gently bring it to their awareness.
"Mom, a clown is going to come in my room tonight, and I can't sleep".
"It sounds like your Anxiety bully is talking, what can you do to stand up to it? Maybe some deep breaths, put on an audio book? Do you have any ideas?"
"Dad, I'm going to fail the test tomorrow!"
"You studied hard and you will do your best, that's all that matters. Now it's time for bed. (It's okay to say this first part one time only!) What can you do to stand up to your Anxiety bully?" If your child asks again, or repeats their fear, you can say "We already discussed this. I'm going to ask you again: What can you do to stand up to your Anxiety bully?"
"Mom, are you sure that the door is locked?"
"I already answered that question and I'm not going to answer it again. I love you. It seems like your Anxiety is acting up, what can you do to stand up to it?"
As your child is able to cope without your reassurance, give them LOTS of positive praise. "Last night your Anxiety came around, and you did a GREAT job talking back to it! I'm so proud of you!"
Parenting a child with Too Much Anxiety can be really difficult. Your innate desire to nurture and comfort your child won't necessarily "work" to resolve Anxiety, and can even make it stronger. Teaming with your child against the Anxiety bully can help your kids understand that you are there for them, just not necessarily in the way that they want. Instead, you are responding in the way that they need. Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can help support you to parent your anxious child in a way that protects your relationship, but without falling into the reassurance trap.
Call today to schedule an appointment. 856-281-1664