One of the most common conditions that we treat at our psychology clinic is anxiety in children. Parents commonly question whether they are contributing to or enabling their child’s anxiety. The fact is, parents (and children) are doing the best that they can. However, there are ways that parents respond to their children that inadvertently makes them more anxious¹.
Intrusive involvement: When “helicopter” parents become overly involved in their child’s activities and decisions, the message they are giving to the child is, “you can’t handle it by yourself.” This parenting strategy does not empower children to be brave or face their fears. Rather, this approach feeds the anxiety, and can contribute to the child avoiding more and more things due to their fears.
What can you do differently? Teach your child to problem-solve by:
- Identifying the trigger to their anxiety
- Brainstorming the various solutions for the problem
- Listing the pros and cons of each solution
- Choosing one solution (or combine a few)
- Testing it out to see what happens. If the solution works out well, that’s great! If the solution did not work out, then try the other ideas that you have already brainstormed. This approach empowers children and helps to develop their decision-making skills.
Solving distress for your child: When parents try to resolve every distressing situation, children do not develop the tools and strategies to manage distress when they are tweens, teens, and adults.
What can you do differently? Teach your child to be a “detective” by finding clues to help him/ her think more realistically in anxiety provoking situations. Encourage your child to answer questions such as: “what are the facts of the situation?”, “what happened when you worried before?”, “what else could happen?”, “what is likely to happen?”, “what advice would you give a friend in the same situation?”, and “what is a more realistic thought about the situation?”. It is important for children to spend some time exploring the pattern of their worries so they can handle situations in a braver manner next time.
Intolerance of anxious arousal (or negative emotions): When parents are intolerant of their child’s “negative emotions” such as anxiety, sadness, frustration, and disappointment, they are communicating that emotions are “bad”. Parents show that they are intolerant or try to limit their child’s negative emotions in several ways, such as immediately fixing their child’s problems, telling their child to “just get over it”, comparing their own adult problems to their child (i.e., “my problem is bigger than yours”), and/ or telling their child that others have it harder than they do (i.e., “there are children starving in Africa…”). All of these approaches communicate that a parent is having trouble dealing with their child’s negative emotion.
What can you do differently? Understand that it is okay for children to feel distress. Distressing emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, and anger are natural and normal emotional states. These emotions tell us valuable information about any given situation. For example, anxiety typically occurs when we want protection. A child can then use that information to identify why they want to be protected, and effectively take steps towards managing the problem. Parents can help their children express their emotions by using empathetic listening — this allows parents to contain their child’s emotions so that the child can gain some space from the situation and control it.
Limited risk-taking play behaviour: Parents may be so focused on keeping their child safe from harm that they may limit their child’s natural curiosity and play. For example, a parent may stop their child from climbing on play structures or participating in certain sports for fear that they may get hurt (e.g., gymnastics and hockey). When parents model anxious behaviours and provide threat or avoidant information to their child, they increase their child’s risk of developing an anxiety disorder².
What can you do differently? Parents should reflect on their own anxiety and seek support for themselves if needed to reduce their overprotective parenting. Promoting worry in children does not keep them safe; rather, it can make their child’s anxiety spin out of control. It is important to realize that children must face their fears and be exposed to a variety of experiences.
In general, preventing avoidance and rewarding brave behaviours are the key parental ingredients to overcoming high anxiety in children¹.