Parenting Anxious Kids: Our parenting hardwiring vs. what actually works
Why sometimes it’s necessary to shift our automatic parenting responses in order to best serve our kids!
Hey, Practice families!
I’ve worked with anxious kids and their families for over fifteen years– and also experienced periods of separation anxiety with my own kid. All of these experiences (both professional and personal!) have made it clear to me that the thing that is most difficult about having a kid who is struggling is this: it is HARD to watch our kids feel distressed… and HARD to allow them to have and work through that experience of distress in order to learn how to cope! Our automatic, instinctual parenting responses are to reassure, buffer, and protect our kids– these are the very tendencies that make us good, connected, and responsive parents. But in situations in which our kids are anxious, sometimes this pull to make things BETTER for our kids actually can be unhelpful in reducing our kids’ anxiety long-term.
Our responses and behavior as parents send our kids powerful messages– messages about whether a given situation truly is worth worrying about and about our faith in our kids’ ability to cope with and tolerate distress. If we allow our kids to avoid situations that feel scary, if we adapt our behavior as parents or the demands that we put on our kids in order to make it less likely that they will be triggered– or if we offer too much reassurance– we can accidentally send our kids the message that there really IS something to be scared about, and that we don’t think they’ll be able to handle it.
As parents, we want to send exactly the opposite message– that even if it’s scary (a feeling that is totally valid!), it’s manageable— and that we know that they’ve got this!
This sounds so easy in theory– but is so much harder in practice! When my son was sobbing in the preschool classroom every morning for the first few weeks of school, all I wanted to do was stay and comfort him (if not scoop him up and take him home!). But I gritted my teeth and left him, even if it was painful walking out the door (let’s just say the preschooler wasn’t the only one who ended up crying!)– because I trusted the teachers, I trusted my kid, and I knew that the only way out really was through.
Skillfully managing our kids’ moments of anxiety means working with our own anxiety about our kids, trying to tap into that knowledge that kids are resilient and that sometimes struggle has to be part of the story– that our job as parents isn’t to smooth the road for our kids and eliminate everything challenging or anxiety-provoking, our job is to offer them the opportunities and support they need to grow and to learn how to cope.
If this feels manageable, I’d encourage you to run with it and try to remember to anchor into this framework as needed.
If this feels overwhelming (your kid’s anxiety/distress feel too strong, or you’re finding yourself already in a place in which you’re consistently avoiding things that might trigger your anxious child and not sure how to go about backtracking!), good news: I am teaming up with Mairin Weiner, LCSW, to offer a new Zoom group for parents of anxious kids that is based on the Yale University SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions!) approach. Indeed, cutting-edge research from Yale suggests that SPACE intervention with parents to teach specific strategies we can use at the times that our kids are anxious is equally as effective as working with kids directly! This makes the SPACE program ideal for families who prefer to tackle anxiety on a parent/family level before deciding to bring a child in for treatment directly– or for families in which kids do not want to attend therapy or where it’s been tough to find a skilled provider with availability!
The group is open to any parents of anxious kids between the ages of 5 and 12, physically located in the state of California. We’ll run eight Wednesday mornings in January 2022. Cost is $995, reimbursable by PPO health insurance, FSA, or HSA. Participating families will have the option to follow up the group with individual support sessions at additional cost, should they wish to do so (although there is no obligation!).
P.S., a few on-topic resources:
- Reassurance Traps: How to Know When Anxiety is In Control (Lynn Lyons, Flusterclux podcast)
- My all-time favorite book for parents of anxious kids (so good I gift it to anyone joining our clinical team!– please note, this is an affiliate link)
- For kids with anxiety, parents learn to let them face their fears (KQED, about the SPACE program)
And also, if you’ve considered signing up for our Mighty Moms program, this: Who is mothering mom? (Dr. Aliza Pressman, on her Raising Good Humans podcast, captures basically the entire reason I wanted to launch the Mighty Moms program and community!)
Just a little reminder!! Sometimes meeting our own needs (and doing what we need to do to find our own emotional equanimity!) is the greatest gift we can give our families too.