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(p. 136) Parenting Anxious Youth: 101 

(p. 136) Parenting Anxious Youth: 101
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date: 09 May 2021

The Pusher

You just need to go. We’re going now, and you have to go with us. You used to go all the time, you can go now.

Why you do it:

Because you’ve seen your child become more isolated from the world, and you’re concerned. You’ve seen your child hold back from doing things, either from things she has done before or from things that her siblings and friends are doing. You feel that, if you could just get her to go, she would enjoy it once she got there and realize that it’s not as scary as she thinks.

What’s good about it:

Ultimately, we do want your child to do the things that make her anxious and face her fears.

Why it doesn’t work:

It can feel invalidating to the child, as if you do not understand how anxious, upset, or uncomfortable this situation makes her. Also, your child does not, yet, have the skills necessary to handle those anxious, uncomfortable feelings. It is likely that, even if you do succeed in getting her to approach the situation, she will “fail,” either by panicking or otherwise feeling overwhelmed by the situation. She will then decide that she was right all along—she can’t handle the situation, and it is too scary.

The Softy

What’s the matter, honey? Your heart is racing and you feel sick to your stomach? OK, if going to school (or Sam’s party or soccer tryouts) is this hard, maybe you should just stay home.

(p. 137) Why you do it:

One of the most basic instincts of parenting is to keep your child safe from harm. When a child is upset, hurt, or distraught, we want to fix it, by whatever means necessary. Often parents worry about making their child worse by pushing her, sometimes even stating their concern about “traumatizing” their child by making her do something that is so obviously distressing.

What’s good about it:

Often, a teen feels as if a parent who accedes to her fears is the one who “gets her”—the one who understands how real and significant her anxiety and distress truly is.

Why it doesn’t work:

Avoidance is a pattern. Once it starts, it is hard to stop. The next time your child gets nervous before an event, she will think that the only tool for handling anxiety is to avoid it. Also, it sets up the idea that anxious feelings are bad, since you are trying to make them stop. Anxiety is a feeling; it is neither good nor bad, it is simply neutral. Just as you would never suggest that your child should never feel sad, angry, or frustrated, you would not want to suggest that she should never feel anxious. Finally, overreacting to the physical symptoms sends the message that these symptoms are dangerous. They are uncomfortable, to be certain, but not dangerous or harmful.

The Anticipator

Oh, boy. We just got this invitation from Aunt Jane to go to a family reunion. I know that 4 hours in the car is just too much for you. Plus, it’s being held in a state park, so I’m not sure what the facilities will be like. I’ll go ahead and decline.

Why you do it:

You know your child and her typical responses to these types of situations. You’ve already wasted time and money on unsuccessful ventures, whether they were family trips that had to be cancelled at the last minute (p. 138) or parties or other events that had to be left early, in the midst of panic. Rather than risk embarrassment for you and your child, it seems better just not to bother.

What’s good about it:

Similar to “The Softy,” your child may feel like you truly understand her since you can anticipate her feelings and limitations.

Why it doesn’t work:

You are teaching your child that she can’t do it and furthering her sense of “that’s too hard for me to handle.” You are modeling that things that make us anxious should be avoided, rather than faced. Also, you are setting up the idea that anxiety is embarrassing. The attitude that “we’d rather not go only to have to leave halfway through” suggests that your child should be embarrassed or ashamed of her anxiety problem.

The Importance of a United Front

Often parents differ in their approach to their child’s anxiety—one might be “The Softy” while the other is “The Pusher.” Teens are smart and savvy: they will pick up on this discrepancy quickly. Inconsistencies in parental responses can send mixed messages that can be confusing. It is important that whatever disagreements you and your spouse have behind the scenes, your child should think of you as a united front (not only about anxiety, but about all parenting decisions).

There is a healthy alternative to these ineffectual approaches:

The Ideal

I know you’re not feeling well. This usually happens before a big test. Use the skills you’ve learned in therapy. I know it’s hard, but I also know that you can do this. Think about how proud you are going to be of yourself when it’s all over and you’ve done it. Let’s think of a good reward—how about going out to dinner tomorrow?

(p. 139) Push compassionately:

Help your child push through the anxiety, and hold firm to expectations about her following through with the situation. But be equally sure to include empathy for the amount of distress the situation is causing her.

Focus on competency:

Reiterate (as many times as necessary) that your child has the ability to handle the situation. Help her to focus on the skills needed to complete the task rather than on the anxiety.

Downplay physical feelings:

Express compassion for the physical feelings, but no longer react to your child as you would if she were truly ill (e.g., if she had the stomach flu). Remind her that anxiety is causing the sensation, the sensation is time-limited (i.e., it won’t last forever, it will end as soon as the anxiety does), and it is not harmful.

Be realistic:

If something is really hard (or perhaps is the first time the child is trying something new), keep the situation manageable in length and intensity, but with the understanding that each time the child tries it, she should push herself to stay a little longer.

Some of this may be different from your typical response to situations, and it may feel uncomfortable at first. Also, you may wonder why your other children have responded just fine to your usual interventions. It is important to note that your interventions weren’t “bad parenting”; they simply were not the ideal way to handle a child with an anxious temperament. It is important to find a parenting style that fits with your child’s temperament—since each child is different, your parenting may have to adjust slightly to best meet each child’s needs.