Recently I posted in the Wellness As One FB group an article from NPR on parenting through anxiety in children. The article explored the advantage of parents learning a therapeutic process to help their child, rather than the children only going through therapy. What they were finding is that often the anxiety that children were feeling was enabled unknowingly by the parents. As the child was experiencing anxiety and their world was getting smaller and smaller, the parents were trying to support their child but the opposite was occurring. As the child would have physical issues with anxiety and want to avoid those issues, the parent believed the best way to support the child was to help them avoid triggers. By using avoidance, neither of them would have to deal with meltdowns, though the the anxiety would grow to more content that would provoke the anxiety and want to be avoided. The circle of anxiety would expand to include more and more – from avoiding certain hallways, then classes, then school and then leaving the house. This is an extreme example, but versions of this happen all the time and everyone feels imprisoned by the anxiety.
My family’s experience has run from anxiety in potty training, to sleeping on their own, to issues with bugs, to flushing toilets, to anything new, to talking too much to other parents at school when one child feels they need me, etc. These have happened or do happen with my two children. The most supportive and effective tools we have used is reflecting and listening, recording and listening and all of us solution-finding in calmer times on how we want to address the issue the person was facing. The reflecting and listening around the sleeping issue when daughter was 2 ½ yrs old looked a little different than it does now, but it is about the same. The idea is to say exactly, or paraphrase in the child’s own words what they said to you as they are explaining what the anxiety looks like, feels like, what it says to the child and what the child knows to be true about the anxiety when they are calmer. They will either correct you or continue on. Once they have been able to say everything they need to say and you have reflected it back to them, it is time to see if you both can come up with a solution other than avoiding the situation. In our case, it was not feasible for one of us to stay with my daughter every night until she fell asleep, and it wasn’t allowing her to see she was adequate to moving through the fear terrifying her. We decided that we would take little steps each night to move towards her feeling comfortable to let us go after her nightly bedtime ritual. The whole thing took about two weeks and we made sure that we did not go on to the next step until she felt comfortable with the current step. At first being with her fear was very difficult and there were times we wanted to give up, but we stuck with it. It started with us sitting next to her bed until she fell asleep. Then we moved the chair farther away from the bed until she fell asleep. Then it was at the door inside the room until she fell asleep, then it was outside the door, then it was checking on her after 5 min, then 10 min, then 15 min, etc. We took turns each night and the whole time we kept telling her she could do this, that she was doing it and was adequate. By the end of the process she was very happy and proud that she no longer needed us and felt comfortable in her room, going to bed by herself. The process of anxiety was the most important piece to identify and stay with, because any content can go into that process, be seen and moved through.
For some families this might be a faster process depending on the content, but the key for us and what I have noticed in working with other parents is to take the child’s fears seriously, listen to what is going on for them and then work on a solution together to move through the fear. It does take time and effort, but it is really worth it. Using recording and listening, recording my own frustrations, fears, projections, etc and then what I know to be true about the situation helps me stay focused what I need, and what my child needs to move through the process of whatever content is coming up for my children. Having my clients and my own children have their own listening and recording practice is helpful, so they can hear what is actually true about the fear or anxiety in their own words as often as they need to, rather than the tape that anxiety plays, which is to keep them in a place of fear and avoidance. It is a practice and something we continue to work on, but every bit worth the e