Reassurance Questions

14 Jul

From Your Anxious Child: Emails to Parents by Edward H. Plimpton, PhD


Reassurance Questions

Consider these questions: “Will everything be OK?” “Am I going to throw up?” “Are you sure this food is safe to eat?” These are more than just questions. They are simple requests for reassurance, something we all need from time to time. As a parent, providing comfort to a distressed child is one of the things we do best, and with infants we are biologically wired so it happens automatically. But when no amount of reassurance seems to calm your child and you have the feeling that you are dealing with a bottomless pit, different measures are called for.

It is not just information that is needed, because you have provided that and your child is still an anxious mess. In fact, when you are at your wit’s end, it can feel like your child doesn’t think you are a credible source of information. Much of dealing with anxiety involves learning to tolerate uneasiness and recognizing that our prior attempts to feel better don’t work and in fact actually make the situation worse. Without intending it, your repeated efforts to reassure your child have acted like an addictive drug, providing quick relief, but leaving her craving more. What we need to help your child learn is to teach her that when an anxious worry pops into her head, if she leaves it alone, it will go away by itself, but if she gives it serious consideration, it hangs around.

So what to do? Your response needs to be informed by how anxious you gauge your child to be. For the highly anxious child who is near panic, utilize the  breathing techniques to bring down his anxiety, and the two-part sentences discussed in a previous chapter, which involves  empathizing with the feeling, but reminding him  of the facts. These are more management strategies for intense moments when there isn’t too much rational thinking going on. However, it will be more helpful if we can make “anxiety” wait and not respond to it right away. So you might say, “That sounds like a worry monster question, I would like you to wait five minutes and see if you still need to ask this question.” If the child gets busy doing something and forgets about the question, then mission accomplished.  If the child still has the question after waiting the requisite amount of time, then answer the question. The child at the very least has learned to tolerate some discomfort for a short time. With practice, she will be better able to tolerate not having these questions answered automatically — and for most children, the anxiety will diminish. The amount of time you ask your child to “make worry wait” needs to be also gauged to what you think he can tolerate, but the goal is have him tolerate increasingly longer periods of time so that the thoughts truly have a chance of floating away.

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