It's natural for parents to want to protect their kids from anxieties they had as children. The solution, however, is to step into the fear, not away from it.
Is there a mistake or set of mistakes that parents of anxious kids consistently make in attempting to help their children?
There are two consistent mistakes, and both are done lovingly and intuitively because they appear to work in the short run. The first is trying to meet anxiety’s demand for certainty. Parents hope to alleviate worry by continually reassuring, planning for, or accommodating their anxious child. Second, when this fails—because absolute certainty is impossible—parents then allow the child to avoid important activities, like school, social gatherings, or outings. Although parents believe they are helping their children by keeping them calm and comfortable, these actually make the anxiety stronger. The more anxious children avoid, and the more they seek security and comfort, the more they become trapped by their anxiety. Their world becomes smaller and smaller.
If a parent has an anxious or irrational outburst in front of a child, what is the best way to address it later with the child?
We are big fans of externalizing the “worry part” with kids. Make it a character! Give it a name! Talk back to it! If a parent is also a worrier and the family is working together on managing worry, then parents can name their own worry, too. Parents serve as important role models for how to respond to an anxious moment, so we don’t mind if parents exhibit the turmoil of their worries, as long as they allow their children to witness them recover using the tools we teach.
What does this approach sound like?
It’s great for kids to hear a parent say something like, “Geesh, my anxiety really got the best of me that time. I was listening to him and completely forgot to step back and problem solve. I’ll keep working on it. Next time worry shows up, I won’t let him boss me around. And if you see my worry show up, let me know!”
What is the most surprising thing you discovered in researching/writing Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents?
We were surprised to discover how often other professionals suggest to parents that they should reassure their children whenever they become worried and that they should make accommodations that eliminate the child’s anxiety when it shows up. This is exactly the opposite of what we teach. Parents shouldn’t take hurdles down to “protect” kids from insecurities; they need to help them jump over the hurdles. On the positive side, while we were writing the book Dr. Golda Ginsburg published some great research that demonstrated how effective parent education can be in the prevention of anxiety in children.
Is your book aimed at parents of children in a specific age range?
We use the techniques with kids as young as four or five, up through the teen years. Many self-identified anxious parents of younger children have told us they read the book preventatively, learning the skills now so they don’t pass on their own anxious patterns as their children grow. The companion kids’ book, Playing with Anxiety: Casey’s Guide for Teens and Kids, is written for ages 8 to 16.
What is the most important point you want to get across?
Anxiety looks dramatic. It can be overwhelming for families if they don’t understand it. But it’s actually not complicated. Even though the content of the worry—from the fear of throwing up to the insecurity of not fitting into a social group—might jump around, the process of anxiety is virtually the same every time. Anxiety does the same thing over and over. Once families recognize its tricks, it begins to lose its power.
If you had one piece of advice, what would it be and who would it be for—parents, children or both?
Because we see anxiety through a family lens, our advice would be to both parents and children: Worry and anxiety are normal. They show up when you are doing something new or different or challenging. Your job is to step into the uncertainty of life, not away from it. Knowing how to respond to your worry—not how to eliminate it—is the key. Parents must focus on raising children that can tolerate uncertainty and problem solve so that kids feel equipped as they grow.
What would you like to see happen as a result of your book?
We want parents to learn the skills to handle both their own anxiety and the anxiety in their children. We are intent on interrupting what is clearly a family pattern. The skills we teach are not complicated, and we know from the hundreds of families we’ve treated that they work. We’d also like to see schools use our approach with parents and children. Most schools unknowingly make the same mistakes that parents make and consequently make anxiety stronger. So far, teachers, guidance counselors, and school nurses have been enthusiastic about what this book offers to schools.
Do anxious parents have a tendency to see mood or behavioral problems in kids where in fact they don’t exist?
Anxious parents have a hard time letting their kids be uncomfortable. So when a child is struggling with normal fears or worries, anxious parents may tend to step in too quickly. They often want to protect their child from similar worries and struggles that they had as an anxious child. And what parent wouldn’t? Nonetheless, anxious families need a whole new framework that sees uncertainty as a healthy first step toward problem solving and confidence. We tell them this: If you’re uncertain or uncomfortable as you move into new situations and challenges, you’re on the right track. Our book provides parents with many exercises to help them shift their frame so they can learn concrete strategies to respond differently to their children.
About THE AUTHOR SPEAKS: Selected authors, in their own words, reveal the story behind the story. Authors are featured thanks to promotional placement by their publishing houses.
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Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents