One step at a time-thinking incrementally

14 Jul

The Incremental Mindset


I share with you the desire to help your child overcome the anxiety that is so much interfering with his or her life. It is hard to be patient when you can see your child in the grip of something that really does not make sense. Understandably, most parents respond to their child’s discomfort with reassurance. It is a natural parental response. Unfortunately, when you are in the “land of anxiety,” no amount of reassurance seems to work, and your child seems like a bottomless pit. So we need some different medicine, and this takes the form of finding a way to face the fear.


There is a delicate balance between pushing your child to confront her fears versus letting her do things at her own pace. Because avoidance behaviors are so reinforcing—they really do provide some short-term relief–chances are that things will get worse, not better, if a child is consistently allowed to avoid anxiety. Avoidance, in fact, actually makes people more afraid in the long run, and becomes a sort of addiction.


As I said, the cure for the anxiety is going to involve finding a way to face the fear, rather than avoid it. However, this needs to be approached carefully. We want your child to master his fears, not be overwhelmed by the interventions that are designed to help him. In most cases, what we need to do is to start with very modest projects and build from there. A very common mistake is to forget to start small. Thinking in incremental steps sounds simple but “impatience” and “frustration” gets in the way potentially for both parent and child. That is in the eagerness to resolve the problem we can get impatient and ask the child to do more than he is ready for or the child may similarily gets impatient . There is also a tendency to devalue the importance of incremental steps by either adults or the child with a comment along the lines of “…but he (I) still can’t…” But that is obviously a mistake for it takes the spotlight away the small successes that can provide hope and encouragement.


At this point, we need to clearly identify the building blocks that each child needs in order to be able to confront fear. Typically it is helpful to make a hierarchical list of the steps it will take to confront a fear or a “fear ladder”. A fear of dogs might begin with looking at pictures or movies of dogs, then observing them outside at a distance and then gradually move closer.  In addition, having a  “feeling thermeter” is important tool in adjusting the pace.   It takes some thought and patience to break a problem down into manageable incremental steps. It is bit like the game of pick-up sticks where you are looking for next stick to take that won’t rattle the pile.  The range of possibilities can vary dramatically from child to child. For some children, just having a clear rationale of what we are doing and why is sufficient. But if we can clearly outline the steps to take, then the journey becomes more tolerable and we can focus on the child’s small victories along the way.

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