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Anxiety

The Risks of Accommodating a Child's Anxiety

How to foster resilience and self-regulation in kids instead.

Key points

  • Accommodation is any action parents engage in with the purpose of alleviating their child's anxiety or stress.
  • Parents may accommodate due to their own personal histories and beliefs systems. Intense child reactions can also increase accommodation.
  • Parental accommodation has been shown to increase child anxiety over time and reduce response to treatment.
  • Long-term coping skills and increased confidence require helping the child face life challenges and get outside their comfort zone with support.

Uncovering parenting tactics that fortify children’s resilience and coping is of utmost importance, especially in this era of global uncertainty and stress. But alas, the plethora of parenting philosophies presented in the media can make it a confusing and exceedingly difficult endeavor for parents to decide which strategies to employ.

And the risks of an ineffective parenting approach can be significant. Anxiety is one of the two most common mental health disorders among children ages 3 through 17, affecting roughly 1 in 11 children, according to the CDC. Prior to the pandemic, nationwide surveys indicated that the prevalence of anxiety in children in the U.S. was already increasing significantly. And not surprisingly, since the start of the pandemic, anxiety rates have doubled in children globally. Social isolation, lack of meaningful connections, social media use, and exposure to news are among the many potential culprits of what was already a growing problem.

One critical question that frequently surfaces in the news and parenting discussions is whether or not (and how much) to accommodate a child’s anxiety.

What is Accommodation?

Accommodation refers to any action parents engage in, or purposefully do not engage in, with the purpose of alleviating their child’s anxiety or stress. Available data indicate that the majority of parents of youth with anxiety disorders (i.e., 97 percent of mothers and 88 percent of fathers) report engaging in accommodating behavior, with most parents reporting accommodating at least once a day.

For example, parents may let their child choose whether or not to engage in activities or sports outside of the home. They may speak for their children in public when their child is afraid to speak on their own or avoid having visitors because it makes the child uncomfortable. They may excessively reassure their child or respond to repeated questions about the fear. When their child becomes frustrated, they might attempt to remove the stressor or provide the desired item or activity in order to extinguish the feelings.

In accommodating families, routines are often adjusted to avoid anxiety. Family territory becomes smaller as parents provide only certain meals that are accepted by the child, go to only certain places the child feels comfortable, or adjust their work and other responsibilities to cater to the child’s needs and demands.

For children with phobias, parents may enable avoidance or participate in the fear in a number of ways. A child may be allowed to stay home from school when a fire drill or other noisy event is anticipated, avoid parks where dogs are often present, avoid bushes where one might run into bees, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

In the case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), parents may also become involved in rituals. For example, they may buy extra hand soap or wash the child’s laundry every day. They may engage in the bedtime ritual in the specific sequence that the child demands.

In separation anxiety, a parent may lie in bed until the child falls asleep or accompany them to a part of the house because they do not want to be alone. For children resisting school attendance, the parent might allow them to stay home for minor complaints like a headache or fatigue.

Why Do We Accommodate?

Accommodation is actually a very understandable and typically well-intentioned behavior that can occur for a wide range of reasons. Parents are hard-wired to protect their children from harm or danger. This protection is a healthy and normal part of parenting when real danger is present. Further, parents experience stress when observing their child experience negative emotional states, and accommodating can provide immediate relief to both parent and child.

Parents may also accommodate due to their own personal histories and belief systems. Some have experienced harsh discipline as a child and as a result, may be fearful or uncomfortable applying behavior management strategies themselves. They may falsely equate discipline with abuse.

In addition, parents may subscribe to the view that they should always strive to make their children happy and comfortable. They may see their role as one in which they are responsible for extinguishing negative emotions. Some may hold the belief that anxiety is harmful to their child.

And to add further challenge, children with anxiety can throw meltdowns, tantrums, and even display aggressive behaviors at times when anticipating or trying to escape a fearful situation. Parents may experience both guilt and anxiety watching their child cry, especially when they set a limit or tell their child no. If accommodation has been a fixture in the household for a long period of time, changes in parenting behaviors can also initially lead to more intense child responses as they adjust to new expectations.

It takes a lot of effort not to accommodate. Stress at home and dealing with multiple demands can make it easy to trade long-term gains for peace and relief in the moment. Understandably, many parents describe that the basic needs of getting to school on time and dinner on the table make it exceedingly difficult to stay the course and not give in to child demands.

What Does the Research Say?

Research suggests that family accommodation maintains child anxiety over time and is linked to higher severity of symptoms and a poorer response to treatment. It has been shown to promote a greater reliance on parents and less development of independent coping skills. It also may prevent children from gaining insight and healthy perceptions of difficult situations because by validating the need for avoidance, parents send the message that the situation is too hard, too dangerous, or the child is not capable.

As Reid Wilson, Ph.D., and Lynn Lyons, LICSW, authors of the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, point out, “Lots of kids and adults get scared of feeling scared and try not to get scared again. That’s the response we need to change. Otherwise, we continue to reinforce a negative pattern: anxiety leads to more anxiety, and then leads to avoidance.”

All that said, it is critical to recognize and reinforce that parents who accommodate have not created their child’s anxiety, and in many cases, the greater the child’s distress and challenging behaviors, the more likely parents are to use accommodation as a strategy. It is also important to recognize that we want to build tolerance and success around developmentally appropriate tasks and activities. A child should never be exposed to or have to continue in any situation that involves abuse or harm of any kind.

While it is a justifiable strategy when trying to deal with challenging child behavior, parents should consider a cost-benefit analysis. That is, it is important to remember that your child’s long-term confidence and coping skills may be traded for short-term comfort and calm. Long-term avoidance can keep you and your anxious child stuck in a frustrating cycle where the fear gains power and control over your child, family, and home.

So instead… think about getting uncomfortable and allowing your child to do so too. Experiencing an emotion is the only way to work through it.

Read my next article Addressing Child Anxiety by Reducing Accommodation for ways to reduce accommodation, set healthy and responsive limits, and scaffold tasks while helping children move gradually outside their comfort zone.

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