Anxiety demands two things: 1) Certainty and 2) Comfort. Avoiding things is the #1 way to secure certainty and comfort. Every time we allow our child to avoid the thing that makes him or her anxious, we reinforce it, unfortunately. Let’s look at some common scenarios to understand this phenomenon better.
Scenario #1: Your ten year old son does not like taking the bus to school. It picks up the kids right at the end of your lane. He doesn’t like how loud and unruly the older kids are during the ten minute bus ride. He complains to you, but has not actually suffered any harm on the bus. Rather than brainstorming tools for managing those uncomfortable ten minutes, you cave immediately and offer to drive him to school everyday. (Notice the decision to provide certainty and comfort).
A Suggestion: See if you can take note of when you feel the desire to rush in and comfort or rescue your child. Can you flip the situation on its head, instead, and imagine the tools that might equip your child to manage the uncomfortable situation more easily instead of securing his immediate exit from the situation? What if you practice aloud with him some carefully selected words that politely, but firmly request that the loud kids quiet down? Or what if you find discreet earbuds/headphones he can use to drown out their noise? Or you can teach your son how to breathe and hum quietly to himself to manage the noise?
Scenario #2: Your 12 year old suddenly seems worried about going to birthday parties. She used to love them, but now wants to decline every invitation. She has not reported any specific incident or event to you that might have contributed to this change of heart. You decide to follow her lead on this unusual preference without diving into it much further. You allow her to come up with excuses for why she cannot attend any of the birthday parties for the next several months. (Notice the decision to provide certainty and comfort).
A Suggestion: Instead of caving to her request, can you find the right time to delve in with her? Did something happen? Is she feeling left out? In what ways can you help equip her with the right words to navigate the situation? How can you empower her to manage the big feelings she’s having instead of running away from them or (worse) trying to avoid them altogether? Is there an adult she trusts at school who might be able to help her? Can she plan to attend at least half of the next party--and then you’ll pick her up early?
Scenario #3: Your eight year old feels anxious when wearing a mask because he feels like he can’t get enough air to breathe. He complains again and again about the mask. You commiserate with him and tell him that he can opt out of real school and do virtual learning for as long as he would like. (Notice the decision to provide certainty and comfort).
A Suggestion: Instead of accommodating and comforting (which provides us with temporary relief and hero-status), can you imagine a tool that you can teach for how to manage the anxiety and improve the situation? Can you brainstorm a script with the child about how to ask for breaks in a safe space every hour? Can he develop a subtle signal with the teacher that grants him permission to leave the classroom for a moment or run an errand on behalf of the teacher whereby he can take a break from the mask? Can you teach him how to take long, deep calming breaths--even with the mask on? Is there a safe, understanding adult with whom he can discuss this problem at school?
Scenario #4: Your 14 year old daughter gets very nervous when you pick her up late from school. She texts you incessantly, asking where you are. Sometimes a meeting runs late or you run into traffic, meaning you arrive 10-15 minutes late. Your daughter does not yet have the skill set to tolerate this discomfort. You acquiesce, hire a babysitter to pick her up every afternoon promptly at dismissal time. (Notice the decision to provide certainty and comfort).
A Suggestion: Acknowledge aloud with your daughter during a calm moment at home that you notice how hard it is for her to manage those uncomfortable, worrisome thoughts she has when you are late. Ask for help from an advisor, a teacher, a mindfulness expert but find a way to teach her and practice daily with her the tools she needs for managing “distress tolerance” or the uncomfortable feelings that bubble up in all of us for multiple reasons. She can learn breathing tips, she can release her worries by physically exerting herself (like doing push-ups or jumping jacks), or she can bring a journal and record her worries in a journal. She can listen to a self-care podcast at that time of day or a recording of you and her speaking calming thoughts. Many, many tools exist to help her manage this type of anxious moment successfully.
Scenario #5: Your pre-teen is concerned about the way the “cool girls” treat her in the cafeteria. Sometimes they include her at their lunch table and other times they exclude her. She wants in. She’s losing sleep over this concern and sometimes feigns a stomach ache so she doesn’t have to attend school at all. You give in and allow her to skip school whenever she is upset about these worries. (Notice the decision to provide certainty and comfort).
A Suggestion: Find a quiet time to help your pre-teen name her feelings aloud with you or someone you trust. Once she gives name to them, you can normalize them and remind her that while troubling, most adolescents share these worries. Ask her what tools or words she wishes she had --right in the moment--that might allow her to handle the situation more confidently and gracefully. Craft a “back pocket phrase” together and practice delivering it with confidence---something that a girl her age would typically say in an awkward moment like that. Then practice a few mantras together: “I can do hard things” or “This is not an emergency” or “This too shall pass” or “I don’t like this, but I can handle it.” Mantras ground us and quickly bring us out of a potential fight-or-flight situation.
Once we help kids fill their tool belts with the right scripts, mantras, breathing exercises, and comebacks for a variety of anxiety-provoking situations, they tend to fare better. Practice makes perfect, though. Brainstorm together, refine, and then practice often. Ask them to look in the mirror as they practice delivering their words to see if their face looks confident and convincing. Kids feel better when we teach them the tools they need to manage their worries, rather than simply erasing all of the uncomfortable moments that unfold in their lives.