Childhood anxiety is one of the most prevalent issues I have seen throughout my career in counseling children. For years, I worked with kids on strategies to identify and calm their fears, cope with anxiety, and talk back to the “worry monster”. Clients would act out fears, practice being brave, tell stories about what their worries were. And all of that was helpful to a certain extent. After reading about Eli Lebowitz’s work with parents around childhood anxiety, I realized there was a better way to manage childhood anxiety...parents. His book, Breaking Free from Childhood Anxiety and OCD provides a research-based framework for parents to help reduce their child’s anxiety.
The idea behind Lebowitz’s work is for parents to focus on ways they can change their responses to their child’s anxiety to help minimize the effects. The first step is to identify ways that parents are accommodating anxiety. When I have worked with parents on this, most of them have been quite surprised at all of the things they do to accommodate anxiety:
Extra loads of laundry so the ‘right’ shirt is clean
Waking up early to make sure there’s enough time for a melt down before school
Reassuring your child that there’s not a monster in the closet
Ordering for your child in a restaurant because they are nervous about speaking to a stranger
Parents never want their kids to suffer or be uncomfortable, and often it’s easier to avoid an anxiety melt-down than have to deal with the outfall. But when we avoid uncomfortable emotions and experiences, the difficulty in coping only increases next time we are faced with a challenge. Teaching your child how to experience and cope with uncomfortable emotions is a key part of this process. Then, finding the balance between validating your child’s emotions and setting firm boundaries is where the anxiety behaviors begin to diminish.
So, what does this look like? Here’s an example: Ellie is nervous about ordering food in a restaurant. In the past, Ellie's mom has always ordered for her, but she realized this is only accommodating Ellie’s anxiety. Mom has a conversation with Ellie before going out to eat. She says “Ellie, I know ordering in a restaurant makes you really nervous and uncomfortable, but I also know it’s something you can do. I am not going to order for you anymore, so if you choose not to order in the restaurant, you’re choosing to not eat with us. You can make dinner once you get home.” Along with this limit, you can also talk to Ellie about ways to decrease her anxiety: taking deep breaths, looking at the menu online and practicing her order before getting to the restaurant, positive self-talk.
Is this easy? Absolutely not.
Is it effective? Yes, when parents can be consistent, compassionate, and firm.
Before you know it, your child will be pushing through anxious moments and successfully handling uncomfortable situations.
If you would like more support around this or need help implementing these strategies, schedule a free 15 minute call.