Child Anxiety, not a solo dance
Child anxiety doesn’t like to dance alone…it’s a family affair.
That’s because the more family members anxiety can draw onto its dance floor, the more powerful it can become.
Research indicates that 97% of children with anxiety have one or more parents that acknowledge that they regularly accommodate their child’s anxiety.
So, it’s normal for a parent of an anxious child to get caught up in anxiety’s rhythm…
Parent to the rescue
Accommodation, in the context of child anxiety, simply means that a parent, in one form or another, rescues their child from having anxious feelings.
There’s a multitude of different ways a parent may do this.
But, in general, it involves trying to change, rearrange, or eliminate the content of the child’s worry.
As 97% of parents of anxious kids do this, it is a very normal reaction and it is done with the best of intentions.
It is loving to want to protect and comfort our children.
But, when we have an anxious child, all this accommodating ends up strengthening our child’s anxiety.
And I know that no parent of an anxious child wants that!
So, we need to learn to recognize how accommodation shows up in our family, as that is the first step in changing this family anxiety dance.
What accommodation looks like
Here are just a few examples of accommodation that I might see in my office:
If a child is socially anxious, a parent may accommodate the anxiety by allowing the child to avoid people, places, or events that bring out their discomfort.
If a child has selective mutism, a parent may accommodate the anxiety by talking for them.
If a child is has a phobia of dogs, a parent may accommodate the anxiety by allowing the child to avoid going to people’s houses who have dogs.
If a child is fearful of trying new activities, a parent may accommodate the anxiety by always sticking to the tried and true.
If a child has difficulty with separations, a parent may accommodate the anxiety by letting the child have unfettered access to them, such as through allowing the child to text them throughout the school day.
If a child is afraid of sleeping in their bed alone, a parent may accommodate the anxiety by staying with the them until they fall asleep and/or letting the child come to the parent’s bed if they wake up during the night. For more on that, see my blog, The Bedtime Blues
One family’s anxiety dance
So, let’s take a look at one family’s anxiety dance in action.
Marcus, an anxious child, has been invited to go to a birthday party.
When the day arrives, Marcus is tense and says he doesn’t want to go.
This could be because…
There might be a clown…he gets nervous in groups…he might not like the food…the family has a dog…he fears throwing up…it’s a skate party and he’s afraid of falling or it’s a new activity…he’ll be exposed to too many germs…it’ll be too noisy…he doesn’t like a kid that will be there…he doesn’t know who will be there…
You get the point.
Marcus’ particular worry isn’t the issue…his anxiety is.
Worry is the master of manufacturing the perfect made-to-order “yikes” moment…so the possibilities are infinite and kind of irrelevant.
So, Marcus’ parent thinks, “Well, I’ve already bought the birthday gift…
And besides, he’ll have a good time if he just lets himself.”
So, parent cajoles, begs, and uses their best logic to try to convince Marcus that it’ll be fine and that he might actually have fun.
But, despite all their best attempts to dislodge Marcus from worry’s sticky trance, Marcus digs his heels in ever-deeper and won’t budge.
And so, feeling extremely frustrated, the following bursts forth from parent’s mouth, “Marcus, you will be going…you’re being RI-DI-CU-LOUS!
In response, Marcus instantly becomes frantic, upping the ante with a full-blown melt-down…quick on its way to becoming a full-blown explosion.
Wanting to put a cap on this intensifying drama, Marcus’ parent blurts out, “okay, okay, okay…just calm down!”
Followed by the magic words…, “You-don’t-have-to-go.”
And then…as if it has disappeared in a poof of smoke…the conflict is over, and all seems well with the world again.
Dance routine over…
Until the next time they are called back to the dance floor…
And it won’t be long…
negative reinforcement and the anxiety dance
Because a powerful phenomenon called negative reinforcement has just occurred.
Negative reinforcement simply means a behavior is rewarded by the removal of something unpleasant.
In this case, the rewarded behavior would be Marcus’ emotional escalation, which was in service of avoiding the anxious trigger, the birthday party.
In general, anxious escalation may present as tears, rage, threats, a physical “crisis”, verbal or physical attacks, withdrawal, freezing, or arguments…depending on the child, the parent, the moment, or the freak out rating of the worry at hand.
This is highly aversive for all involved!
And because of this, the child’s behavior often “works”.
When an anxiety trigger is removed, the child’s anxiety takes an instant nose-dive and…Ahhh sweet relief…an immediate and powerful payoff for the child.
The parent’s accommodating behavior also “works”.
Here when Marcus’ parent said the magic words, “You-don’t-have-to-go,” peace reigned again…Ahhh sweet relief…an immediate and powerful payoff for the parent.
And so, that is how anxiety, this master choreographer, pulls parents into its dance.
Anxiety’s Rigid dance
Anxiety’s choreography has nothing to do with joy, freedom, creative expression, or expansive movement.
Quite the contrary.
Anxiety’s dance is prescribed, monotonous, restrictive, shackling…
Its dance floor…small, confining, ever-shrinking.
Now such a dance would be okay, even expected, if it was just an occasional thing…
But, if you’re parenting an anxious child, you can only wish that was the case.
have you bought what anxiety’s selling?
Perhaps your family dance no longer resembles the birthday party scenario described above.
Perhaps there are no longer any arguments.
Perhaps, due to burnout or overwhelm, your parental expectations have dramatically decreased or even been eliminated.
And so perhaps your child has learned that they will not be expected to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps anxiety, insidious and non-relenting, has trained everyone well… convincing everyone that there’s no other choice…but its.
Perhaps you and your child have completely bought into what anxiety is selling…
It would make sense…
Because in addition to being a master choreographer, anxiety is a master salesperson.
Anxiety repeatedly convinces anxious children and their parents that if they just follow its advice, avoiding and accommodating, it’s all for the best.
It tantalizes them into thinking they’re actually getting a pretty good deal.
Anxiety’s Plan: Short-term gain and long-term pain
We could think of Anxiety like someone selling a beautiful house at what appears to be a remarkable price…
So, of course, if you’re in the market, you might be tempted to snatch up the such a deal…
And let’s say you do…
Only later to discover that its wood is infested with termites, which are little by little destroying the house’s structure and ability to function.
And, sadly, that is exactly what anxiety does to your child.
It gradually chips away at their belief that they are equipped to function effectively in the world…
And then they are indeed less and less able to do so.
Anxiety loves to take over territory…
And if allowed to, it will take and take and take.
Anxiety makes big promises…
But, in the end, it delivers nothing more than small moments of relief, while shaking the very foundation of a child’s self-esteem.
you needn’t buy anxiety’s goods
The good news is every dance routine is changeable, flexible…your family is surrounded by creative potential.
Brains are malleable…children’s incredibly so!
Will your child thank you if you start to change your role in the family anxiety dance?
But, with time, a resounding yes!
This is a marathon not a sprint…
Step by step you can begin to create a new and flexible dance that will support and strengthen your child…not their anxiety.
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.