Child Anxiety and Reassurance Seeking
Reassurance, A Loving Response
As parents, we naturally want to provide reassurance to our children.
We want them to feel secure and cared for.
But, the problem with providing reassurance to our anxious kids is that their anxiety hijacks it and uses it for its own nefarious purposes.
Well, I know that sounds a bit dramatic.
But, there's no denying, anxiety is a major drama queen...or king.
And so to continue with the dramatics...drum-roll...
Anxiety is a Total Reassurance Junkie
That’s right…a junkie!
Anxiety has a constant and insatiable appetite for reassurance.
This is because reassurance has little sticking power with our anxious kids…so they come back for more…and more…and more…
Reassurance is Like Sugar to Anxiety
Those of us who love sugary treats know what a satisfying feeling a delicious sweet can bring.
But, we also know that in short order, the sugar runs through our system, leaving us with a craving for yet another sugar fix.
And external reassurance operates as such for our anxious children.
It gives them a fleeting illusion of certainty and comfort, the very things that anxiety craves.
But, then this illusion quickly dissipates…and our child is back for yet another fix.
Anxiety's Linchpins, Certainty and Comfort
So, what are we to do?!
As parents, we have a natural desire to comfort and reassure our children.
When they’re uncomfortable, we feel uncomfortable too.
But, just like our children, we too need to learn to be with and allow our discomfort.
Because the more we provide reassurance to our anxious children, the more they expect and demand it...and the more anxiety grows.
What our anxious children really need is to increase their tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort.
This is because certainty is an illusion and the road to a meaningful life is not paved by comfortable wanderings down Easy Avenue.
External Reassurance, a Risky Venture
Anxious children are perpetually looking for reassurance from the outside,...outside comfort.
And this can become a dangerous precedent, setting the stage for unhealthy habits down the road.
We do not need to look far to see how…
In today’s world, many teens and adults look outside of themselves for a feeling of comfort...
This can take so many different forms...from being too connected to receiving a certain number of “likes” on social media pages...to resorting to drugs, alcohol, or a litany of other false comforts.
In fact, research has clearly demonstrated that when anxious children are not treated for their anxiety, they are at a far greater risk of developing depression and addiction issues down the road.
And one culprit can be that they have never developed the ability to reassure themselves from within.
So, how can we help our anxious kids learn the crucial skill of internal reassurance…of going inside and drawing comfort from their own resources?
But, before answering that question, I do want to highlight that there are times where it is perfectly appropriate to provide reassurance to our anxious kids.
We must, however, be judicious in providing it.
When is External Reassurance WARRANTED?
As parents, we must be able to tell the difference between healthy versus anxiety-driven reassurance seeking.
If our child is doing something new, for example, learning to ride a bike or it’s the first day of school, a bit of reassurance is completely called for.
And a little pep talk before a big test, a try-out, a tough conversation, and other such things is totally appropriate.
However, if we find that our child is repeatedly asking for reassurance when we have already provided it…we need to then recognize that anxiety is most likely calling the shots.
The Changing of the Reassurance Guard
Now the thing is we don’t want to just suddenly refuse to give reassurance to our child if we’ve been giving it in spades.
We first need to prepare our child for the job by beginning to gradually transfer the reassurance-giving role over to him or her.
But, how do we do that?
A Short How-To Guide
When your anxious child asks for reassurance…the kind you’ve already repeated multiple times…you can start prompting them to provide their own.
For example, if your child asks something such as,
“Do you think anyone will play with me at recess today?”
You can calmly respond, “I’m curious to know what you think?”
And if your child needs help formulating the words to use, that’s fine, coach him or her along.
And if your child bulks at the whole idea, that’s okay too.
Continue to gently coach your child by saying,
“These questions are so normal…I understand why you ask them.
But, it's important to learn to answer these questions for yourself...from within…
So you can carry the answers with you no matter who you're with and no matter where you go.
And, sure, it might take some time to get used to doing this…
So, we’re going to practice.
But, it will be worth it...you'll see."
Our Role in the Reassurance Trap
And speaking of practice, we, as parents, must also look at our own role in the current dynamic.
You might find that despite your best of intentions, try as you might, you are finding it hard to stop providing your child with reassurance.
One reason for this, apart from it just being sheer habit, is because providing your child with reassurance might also serve to lower your own anxiety.
Because on one level, it seems like when you reassure your child, you are equipping them to face their fears.
But, as your child returns over and over for that same reassurance fix, you can begin to see that it's not serving that end.
An anxious child begins to feel equipped only once they are capable of providing themselves with reassurance.
Internal reassurance is a skill that can be learned, but, it does require consistent practice.
So, be patient, both with your child and with yourself.
And if it does prove to be a challenge, here’s a fun idea.
A Fun Twist
Give your child a sticker or a point each time they "catch" you giving them reassurance of the unhelpful variety.
(You can explain the difference to them between the helpful and unhelpful variety.).
After your child has “caught” you a predetermined number of times, he or she will receive a little prize.
Your child will get a big kick out of turning the tables, teaching you something for a change...all while reinforcing his or her ability to internally reassure.
Such a game will not only help you and your child kick the reassurance habit, but it will also increase your child’s sense of mastery, which is something that anxious children often lack.
And remember, whenever you can turn any learning experience into a fun or light-hearted game, it’s always a win-win for both you and your anxious child.
Helping Anxious Kids is here to support your family. If you are seeking anxiety treatment for your child and my approach resonates with you, schedule an appointment today.