What If You Are Enabling Your Child’s Anxiety?
A child’s anxiety is seldom helped by anxious parenting. Learn about parenting behaviors that worsen and enable anxiety, and how to help your child better manage anxious thoughts and feelings.
Anxious children often pick up on and learn anxious behaviors from the important adults in their lives.1 Well-meaning adults, intent on safeguarding children against stressors, worries, and uncomfortable feelings, may inadvertently disallow them from learning essential problem-solving skills and coping mechanisms that help ward off anxiety.
7 Parenting Behaviors That Worsen Anxiety in Children
Too often, parents make the mistake of using catastrophic language to scare their children into obeying them. A child old enough to stay at home alone only needs a directive like, “Lock the door and don’t answer it for anyone.” With catastrophic language, it becomes, “Lock the door and don’t open it or else a stranger will come in, kidnap you, and steal our stuff.”
Emphasizing safety is important. But catastrophic language and worst-case dramatics only teach children to scan for dangers at every moment, which fires up and over-activates the amygdala.
Too Much Corrective Feedback
Excessive corrective feedback happens when parents over-monitor children. Corrective feedback may look like incessant, repetitive prompts that rob children of the opportunity to think and problem-solve for themselves:
- “Move your cup from the edge of the table so it doesn’t spill.”
- “Make sure to get your homework out.”
- “Put away your shoes before you trip on them.”
Corrective feedback is a form of perfectionism, which is anxiety provoking. Children learn to assume that there is something wrong with their every action, and they will try their best to avoid negative feedback by refusing to engage.
Corrective feedback is especially problematic for anxious children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who are more likely than their neurotypical peers to receive corrective or negative messaging at school and at home.
Are you bubble wrapping your child against disappointment and failure? Are you too quick to jump in and “save” them from bad feelings? What accommodations have you established that wouldn’t be there in the absence of anxiety?
Children need exposure to normal, manageable threats and stressors. It’s how they develop appropriate coping skills that increase confidence and resilience. Interrupting this process through overprotectiveness conveys a message that anxious children are already telling themselves: “I can’t handle it.”
Too Much Reassurance
Anxiety wants certainty and predictability. It wants a guarantee that “everything will be OK” and that “nothing will go wrong” – which no one can promise with unwavering certainty. That’s why too much reassurance can reinforce anxiety, especially when the unpredictable inevitably occurs. Constant reassurance robs children of opportunities to learn how to roll with the punches.
Watch out for dependency traps, too. Small things – like letting your child sleep in your bed, speaking for them at restaurants, and sticking to rigid routines – can turn into problematic habits if done often enough.
Unchecked Digital Media Time
Too many children and teens have unchecked access to a crisis-saturated world on their devices. Doomscroll upon doomscroll, anxious, developing brains can’t process that a disaster or a tragedy happening thousands of miles away isn’t a danger to them. And for anxious children with ADHD, poor self-regulation may make it that much harder to look away. All parents should make it a priority to limit their child’s screen time and digital media use.
How to Help Anxious Children
Anxiety in children is a family problem, and it requires a family solution. Step one is examining and regulating your own anxious behaviors. Then comes changing how you and the rest of the family respond to your child’s anxiety.
1. Act as an emotional coach. Coaches can’t play the game, but they can offer their support and guidance. This mentality will help you resist interfering with experiences that will help your child grow.
2. Validate and acknowledge your child’s feelings. Don’t fall into the trap of dismissing your child’s genuine fears and concerns in an attempt to eradicate anxiety. Validating your child’s fears, even if those fears seem disproportionate to the situation, is not the same as coddling them. Anxious children need to learn that overcoming anxiety is about doing what we’re afraid of in spite of – not without – fear. That means that even well-meaning reassurances like, “It’s not so bad” and “It’s OK, nothing bad is going to happen” minimize your child’s feelings.
If your child is afraid that there are monsters under their bed, validate that feeling: “That does sound scary. I’d be afraid if I thought there were monsters under my bed, too.” At the same time, show confidence in your child’s ability to handle the situation with a supportive response: “What are you going to do to get to sleep tonight?”
3. Teach your child to externalize and expose anxiety. Help them think of anxiety as a sneaky trickster trying to get the best of them. I personally like to refer to anxiety as a tricky gremlin, but other names work. (Loki, the god of mischief, is another good one, but naming anxiety “Bob” or another average name also works.)
Encourage your child to think of what the gremlin/their preferred name for anxiety is up to when anxious feelings come up. They can say things to themselves like
- “The gremlin sure is trying hard to make me think the worst today!”
- “Loki really knows how to stress me out.”
- “Bob is trying to insert this scary story into my head.”
Externalizing anxiety in the form of a character is a kid-friendly version of the “name it to tame it” principle. Externalizing anxiety also helps children separate themselves from their worries, which is crucial. Anxious teens especially tend to believe that anxiety is an ingrained, unchangeable personality trait. Doing away with this mentality is often the biggest hurdle that I help patients navigate in my practice.
4. Acceptance over elimination. Children – and adults – often make the mistake of trying to stamp out anxious thoughts and feelings as soon as they arise. Sure, some strategies, like breathing, can help calm the body and mind in the moment. But trying to completely eliminate anxiety is a recipe for hopelessness that only perpetuates the anxiety cycle.
Rather than eliminate anxiety, teach your child to acknowledge and accept its presence. Just as they learn to acknowledge when Loki, Bob, or the gremlin show up, teach them to accept that anxiety will tag along with them sometimes – an annoyance that shouldn’t stop them.
5. Build their worry tolerance. Your child’s ability to manage anxiety directly relates to their willingness to feel anxiety. Acceptance is one avenue toward building worry tolerance. Other methods:
- Avoid swooping in, whether it’s through reassurance, ritual, or other behaviors that enable anxiety. Encourage your child to face their fears without safety behaviors.
- Provide your child with ample opportunities to experience and learn. Anxiety wants us to avoid life, and anxiety becomes a disorder when we let it do what it wants. So say “yes” more often. (Saying “no” often invites opposition and stress.) Children need exposure to difficult, hard things to learn coping skills.
- Admit to uncertainty. Anxious children will demand answers to unknowns. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know” to your child. It’s even better to say, “I don’t know, but let me know what you figure out.”
- Instill responsibility. Resilience begins with responsibility. Let your child independently take on chores and other activities at home to increase their confidence. (If they know how to work a tablet or smartphone, they can work a washing machine.)
Children’s Anxiety and Anxious Parenting: Next Steps
- Read: When Should We Worry About Childhood Anxiety Disorders?
- Read: Understanding the Role of Anxiety in Children with ADHD
- Read: Is Your Child Worrying Too Much?
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Anxiety in Children: Overlooked Signs and Effective Supports” [Video Replay & Podcast #401],” with Caroline Buzanko, Ph.D., which was broadcast on May 19, 2022.
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View Article Sources
1 Fisak, B., Jr, & Grills-Taquechel, A. E. (2007). Parental modeling, reinforcement, and information transfer: Risk factors in the development of child anxiety? Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 10(3), 213–231. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-007-0020-x
2 Ginsburg, G. S., Drake, K. L., Tein, J. Y., Teetsel, R., & Riddle, M. A. (2015). Preventing Onset of Anxiety Disorders in Offspring of Anxious Parents: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Family-Based Intervention. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(12), 1207–1214. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.14091178