How much to push your anxious child?

7 Apr

How much should I push my anxious child? This is a puzzle all parents face with children, especially those with an anxious bent. The challenge is how to help them face their fears in a way that truly promotes the learning experience of “I can do it”. Push too hard and the child will dig in her heels or melt down. But if the nudging is too gentle or inconsistent nothing will change. To complicate matters, often parents find themselves on opposite sides of this issue, so that one is the tough guy and the other is permissive, with tension resulting between the parents. Additionally, sometimes the parents are pushing out of their frustration rather than out of a thoughtful consideration of what the child needs.

There are three parts to figuring out this problem on how much to push. First, begin with developing a mutual understanding with your child about the nature of the problem and what needs to happen. This is a whole topic by itself, but it merits a brief mention here. There always needs to be a reason for doing something difficult and of course it is better if it is the child’s reason rather than yours. But that isn’t always possible, so that sometimes simply we need to say something  like “children have to go to school”.  Next, there also needs to be some mutual understanding about the nature of the problem, such as “this is anxiety, that is the worry monster talking, that is a false alarm”. These two elements provide a basic foundation from which to proceed.

Second, in thinking about how much to challenge your child, we need to determine at any particular moment where your child is on the arousal/anxiety scale, because this will determine what type of input she will be able to respond to. A child in the middle of a panic attack, or a child coming off the playing field in tears, needs calming down and will not be receptive to advice. So we first need to make note of the anxiety level in your child, which involves not only what she says, but  more importantly any nonverbal behavior suggesting she is in a frozen/inhibited state. In general, we tend to err more on underestimating how anxious children are. At the same time, childhood is a time of big feelings, and there is not always a one to one relationship between the intensity of expression and the capacity to deal with it. Many young children protest mightily at being dropped off to school and then quickly come around once the parent leaves and the school day has started. Sometimes the protest is out of “habit” and does not represent an emotional freeze state. So it is not always easy determining the anxiety level in your child.

Third, the idea of taking small steps to tackle problems big and small is common sense. The ability to think incrementally, breaking problems down into smaller steps is characteristic of good teaching in any domain. A first step can simply be formulating a sequence of brave steps, a fear ladder, with as much collaboration with the child as possible. We can never really know what the next steps will be for your child; actually we can only make an educated guess. Therefore, it is best to phrase the challenges as experiments and use invitational language. “Would you be willing to pick up the plastic spider or look at a picture of one?”  The next step is guided by the child’s response. Imposing a challenge or exposure on a child generally doesn’t work well, although sometimes  it can’t be avoided. But the best result is obtained when the child is given choices and determines the next step. This process can be slow but if your child is actively making brave challenges you are moving in the right direction.

copyright 2109@Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

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