Are You Enabling Your Child’s Anxiety?

By Mary Sliwa

Do you feel like your time is overrun by your child’s anxiety?

Are you rearranging your entire schedule to help your child or teen avoid something that causes them anxiety?

For example, do you allow them to skip school on days when they have presentations, let them sleep with you due to fear of being alone, order for them in restaurants because of social fears, or even drive a different route to avoid places or things they don’t want to encounter?

It’s understandable and common to want to protect your child from anxiety by helping them avoid feared situations. But are you protecting them, or are you enabling their anxiety even more?

It turns out that doing things that help your child feel less anxious in the moment—such as leaving or entirely avoiding anxiety-producing situations—actually worsens the anxiety in the long run. This pattern, called accommodation of anxiety, is now being effectively addressed by a program called Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE), which helps the child or teen by first helping the parent learn more effective ways of responding to them.

Who knew parents could be so important in their child’s recovery from anxiety? Counselors trained in the SPACE program coach parents on how to communicate more supportively to their child while decreasing behaviors that enable or worsen the anxiety. Parents are often relieved to hear they can play a pivotal role in helping their child overcome anxiety, that there are specific things they can learn that will be more helpful and decrease their sense of confusion—and aggravation!—in parenting their anxious child.

If your child has anxiety, getting help from a SPACE-trained counselor can help you be more supportive and avoid the inevitable flip-flopping between helping your child avoid anxiety and escalating arguments in which you try to force your child to engage in activities.

Here are some tricks and tips from the SPACE program that can help you parent your anxious child more effectively:

Increase Communication of Support

Parenting an anxious child can be very hard: It’s easy to get frustrated by our child’s avoidant or challenging behaviors. However, if we tap into the fact that our child is struggling and increase our support for them, the benefits can be enormous: They’ll likely experience a greater sense of well-being, explore different coping skills, have higher self-esteem, and find a greater sense of belonging.

So what do we mean by increasing support? First of all, we mean increasing our use of supportive statements, and we do this before attempting to change any of our accommodating behavior. We accept and validate their feelings and convey confidence in their ability to handle their anxiety. If this were a math equation, it would look like this:

Acceptance/Validation + Confidence = Support

When talking to your child when their anxiety is triggered, it’s important to remember that you are not trying to convince them of anything. You’re simply supporting them and conveying confidence in their ability to handle things.

Here are some examples of supportive statements:

  • “I know it’s not easy, and I have confidence in you!”
  • “I know it’s hard, and you have the power to get through!”
  • “I understand this is hard for you, and I’m confident you can get through it!”

Let’s contrast these statements with the ways in which we tend to enable anxiety. One way of enabling is being overly protective; another is to become demanding.

We might wonder, what’s the harm in protecting? Well, when we protect our child, we tend to only validate feelings, without helping the child learn to cope better. We accept the child’s fear but we then reassure them or help them avoid feeling anxious. We are essentially saying—both to ourselves and the child—”She can’t handle this.” The problem then gets worse. The child or teen avoids anxiety-provoking situations even more than before and experiences more anxiety about them. This is because avoidance increases anxiety.

Here are some more examples of protective beliefs that can turn into enabling responses that will increase actually increase your child’s anxiety:

  • “Anxiety can hurt her.”
  • “My job is to protect her from this.”
  • “I need to help him feel better.”

Being demanding is another way we can enable our child’s anxiety. If we’re demanding, we’re also invalidating the child’s difficulties and feelings. We are expecting the child to act bravely without recognizing the difficulty they are experiencing. Some examples would be saying, “You should be able to do this.” or “Your younger sibling can do this. Why can’t you?”

Reduce Accommodation

In addition to increasing the level of support we give our child or teen, the second critical component of the SPACE program is learning to decrease our accommodation of our child’s anxiety. Accommodation is any action we take that increases the child’s avoidance of anxiety, making things worse in the long run by decreasing their sense that they can cope.

We often respond to that anxiety with behaviors that are enabling, but how do we know when we’re doing so? We can ask ourselves,

  • ”Would I be doing this if my child was not anxious?”
  • “Am I doing the same for all my kids?”
  • “What would happen if I did not do this one day?”

It’s important to remember that if we want to stop enabling, we must be low on accommodation and high on support.

Choose a Target Accommodation

To decrease the amount of time you spend accommodating your child, you must first choose one thing to target. It’s essential to pick one target, because stopping many things simultaneously is unrealistic and likely to yield inconsistency.
When selecting a target, start with something small that if you stopped would improve family functioning. Choose something that is done frequently enough that you will have plenty of opportunity to practice not doing. For example, if your child avoids talking to adults once each day, you have seven chances to do things differently by not speaking for him. The more often something occurs, the more we get to practice cutting it out completely. As you find yourself stopping one accommodation, you can then gradually target another one that is more challenging. This cycle will continue until you become more supportive and less accommodating overall. The benefit here is that you’ll have progressively more time for self-care, sleeping in, smooth rides to school, and more!

Learn Ways to Cope with Your Child’s Reactions

It all sounds like a dream, right? Finding ways to stop decrease your child’s anxiety and challenging behaviors, and finding more time for yourself? And yet… reality always finds its way in…because stopping accommodations tends to cause reactions. Your child may cry, ignore you, become aggressive, or even try to blackmail you. It’s essential to remember that their behavior originates from their nervous system being highly activated…the flight or flight response. It helps to empathize with the child and not show anger or frustration with them.

It’s important to let your child know in advance that you plan to stop an accommodation. Beforehand, it’s good to have someone you can lean on for support. Choose a time when your child is relaxed to share the news. Finally, when you’re in a moment in which your child is pressing for you to accommodate their anxiety, offer those supportive statements and don’t give in. Be sure to avoid punishments (they are highly ineffective) and seek the help of your support person.

In the world of child and adolescent mental health, the good news is that there is a lot parents can to do help their child or teen. Counseling for the child or teen themselves can be critical, but parents don’t often realize that getting help for themselves from a counselor trained in SPACE is often the best way to help their child!

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