The GPS Says “Recalculating”

14 Jul


The GPS Says “Recalculating”



When you have an anxious child, not one who is momentarily anxious because it is the start of a new school year or a first sleep-over, but a child whose worries seem to pervade the home or prevent him from just being a kid, then you are in a new land of parenting. For most parents, the advice of the famous pediatrician, Benjamin Spock, to trust your intuition —“You know more than you think you do”— holds true. However, when your child enters the land of anxiety, you may need to, as the GPS device in my car often says, “recalculate.” As parents, when our child shows distress, our default reaction is to provide comfort, and it is really what most of us do best. However, with an anxious child if your primary response is to provide reassurance, you may actually be making the situation worse without intending it. The reason is that just as we tend to repeat things that give us good rewards, we also tend to repeat actions that take away an unpleasant feeling. Thus, an anxious child may look to a parent for reassurance and feel a momentary sense of relief upon hearing the answer. However, an informal indication that you have an anxious child on your hands is that your efforts at reassurance do not seem to work, and the child keeps on asking the same or similar questions over and over again. You have a bottomless pit on your hands and if you are going to help your child, an adjustment in your default setting will be needed. Of course if you lapse into an impatient diatribe, insisting that your child’s fears do not make sense, which is hard to avoid, you only make things worse.


This adjustment in parenting has to be thoughtful because we need to present your child with a challenge that will help him grow, but not overwhelm him with something that he is not ready for or has the skills to deal with. As Dupont et al explain, the worry dragon is always saying, “better safe than sorry.” In general, it is the quest to be absolutely certain that everything is going to be alright that puts a child in the restrictive prison built by worry. Learning to tolerate some uncertainty and discomfort is a big “key” to getting out of this prison cell. . The challenge in dealing with children is make this process workable when the general capacity for dealing with intense emotions, whether it is losing a board game or at a swim meet, is quite fragile. However, these are important skills to develop. There is a famous psychology experiment by Walter Mischel who presented 4-year-olds with a choice in which they could have one marshmallow immediately, or wait 15 minutes and have two marshmallows. He found that the children who were able to wait and not eat the marshmallow right away did better 15 years later on a variety of academic and social dimensions. So if we can help our children make the “worry monster” wait, rather than responding to him right away, we will be teaching them something quite important.

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