Caring for a child or vulnerable person who suffers from anxiety can be challenging, but can also cause distress and exhaustion. This article addresses the personal factors that may make supporting an anxious child more difficult, and how helping ourselves may in the end be the best way to support our family.
As I have discussed elsewhere, anxiety may be better regarded as a different psychological mechanism to fear. Anxious behaviour in infants is regarded as an evolutionary impulse designed to draw close those people (or things) that make us feel safe, as opposed to getting us away from things that might be dangerous.
When thinking of anxiety in children or vulnerable adults, this can be an excellent way for us as parents or carers to start to consider a workable solution for helping our child. The anxious behaviour is a cry for safety and closeness, and indicates that they feel separated and alone. Whatever way this manifests in our child, from clinging, to social avoidance, to panic attacks or even in some cases aggression, we can take the big picture perspective that while they may be somewhat afraid of those situations, in fact the main issue is a need for security and reassurance, and not their inability to deal with the situation in question.
There is a danger here though, of stepping in to reassure our child too soon, and actually increasing their experience of anxiety. By protecting them from situations they want to avoid, we inadvertently reinforce the idea that the situation is, in fact, dangerous and should be avoided. The ideal response therefore to anxious behaviour in any child is to gently encourage them to engage with the situation, and to express confidence and faith in their ability to manage. Through such supported exposure, they are given a chance to feel powerful and capable, feelings that directly contrast with the experience of anxiety.
The work of increasing our child’s sense of connection and safety can also be reinforced at home, when they are not directly facing situations that trigger anxiety. Deliberately using times when everyone feels calm and relaxed to connect and have fun can help increase our child’s overall feelings of security and well-being. This increases their resilience and can dramatically decrease feelings of anxiety in previously challenging situations. Of course this doesn’t happen overnight, but a consistent focus on connection and safety at home is likely to increase our child’s receptiveness to our encouragement when facing situations that have provoked anxiety in the past.
This is not new to those of us who have researched ways to help our children, but most advice rests on the assumption that we as the parent or carer are in a position to engage our child’s anxiety with a casual sense of ease and fun and convey an attitude of confidence and encouragement. Now while even the most relaxed and accomplished person cannot maintain this all of the time, for most of us it is very difficult to feel and act this way consistently. The pressures of supporting a child who is in distress, of listening to extended crying or fussing or whining, or of having to make excuses for not attending social events can become overwhelming, exhausting and humiliating. Fears for our child’s well-being and future prospects, upset at not being able to provide comfort in the moment, having to think through and prepare for our child’s responses to difficult situations, all add to a sense of inadequacy and isolation that can challenge our belief in our own ability to manage, never mind our child’s.
Some of us also have personal experience of anxiety, stemming from a sense of disconnection and separation that may have its roots in our distant childhood. We may do anything to avoid feeling our own difficult emotions, perhaps avoiding situations that provoke our own anxiety, or maybe we struggle to demonstrate to our children a successful way of managing this anxiety. Witnessing anxiety in someone else can be a painful reminder of our own struggles, and when our child becomes anxious we may struggle with their distress, as well as our own intolerable feelings about it. We may find ourselves trying to stop the anxious episode as quickly as possible, which does successfully decrease painful feelings of anxiety in both of us in the moment, but as noted above, it inadvertently sets us up to dread facing similar situations in the future. We also, through avoidance, send a message to both our child and ourselves that we are not capable of dealing with the situation in question, decreasing our sense of confidence and the self-belief that is essential for mastery of any challenge.
It may be useful then, to notice how much our child’s anxiety behaviour affects us and what we tend to do in response. If we find ourselves anticipating and dreading certain situations, we may also notice how it is often easier to just not go there. Perhaps we find ourselves avoiding doing things we used to love, because we fear the consequences. We might even notice those times when we just want to shut their behaviour down because of the painful feelings it evokes in us. If this is so, we may need to acknowledge that we too have a human need to feel reassured. We may need to recognise our deep longing for safety and connection with someone other than our child, someone who can withstand our emotional pain, and who can encourage and believe in our capacity to manage with all that life throws at us.
Identifying those people in our lives who can help us to increase those feelings of security and confidence around supporting our children is vital, regardless of whether we suffer from personal anxiety or other challenges. However if we experience our child’s anxiety as more distressing than challenging then it may be helpful to access professional support to work through our own previously unmet needs for connection and security. Doing so can increase our ability to tolerate both our own and others’ distress, can help reduce any obvious or latent symptoms of personal anxiety, and can also help us to develop an inner confidence in our own ability to manage challenging situations, as well as in our child’s. Accessing counselling can be the most obvious form of help that many people reach for, but hypnotherapy can also be of great use in connecting and communicating with the ‘child’ within us, and of making connections between our own unmet childhood needs and the adult perspective we now hold. Once our own needs are met, we can bravely and confidently turn to and meet our child’s unmet needs and trust that they too will eventually discover a sense of security that we always knew they deserved in the first place.
Take some time to consider the following questions for yourself. Take care of yourself as you do so, as uncomfortable issues may arise. If you would like some support in sorting through your discoveries please feel free to get in touch.
- What is it like for you when you encounter another adult’s anxious behaviour? Are you able to stay with them or would you prefer them to stop or leave you out of it?
- If you have a child or care for someone vulnerable, how easy is it to cope with their anxiety? Is your tendency to encourage them to try something challenging, or do you find yourself giving in to avoid a melt-down?
- What is your own experience of anxiety? How did the adults in your life respond to such behaviours when you were a child?
- What relationships do you have that help you to feel connected and reassured? How does their encouragement affect your own ability to manage challenges? What strategies do they use that you could you use with your child?
Kate Orson, 20 Playful Ways to Heal Separation Anxiety, Hand-in-Hand Parenting, https://www.handinhandparenting.org/2016/01/20-playful-ways-heal-separation-anxiety/
The Impact of Anxiety Disorders on the Family, Healthy Place, https://www.healthyplace.com/anxiety-panic/articles/impact-of-anxiety-disorders-on-the-family/
Michaela Searfoorce, Tips for Calming Anxious Kids, Child Mind Institute, https://childmind.org/article/tips-calming-anxious-kids/
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