How to Support Your Child Through Anxiety
Seeing our children afraid and hurt is never easy. When we brought them into this world we committed to making their journey in life as smooth as possible. But life is never 100% smooth and facing pain, fears, and sadness is always part of what our children have to deal with.
When those things happen, how do you take care of your child? How do you react to them? In this episode you'll learn about the two sides of The Interpersonal Barrier, and how parents tend to fall into either being a demanding or a protecting parent.
But more importantly – you'll learn how to place yourself as a Supportive Parent.
- What's the difference between a demanding and a protective parent.
- What is The Interpersonal Barrier?
- What does Supportive Parenting look like?
- [01:30] The Demanding Parent VS. The Protecting Parent
- [03:43] The Interpersonal Barrier
- [08:08] The Supportive Parent
Resources Mentioned in The Episode
Get the free SAFER Method Cheat Sheet
Download the free cheat sheet with The SAFER Method that will help you and your child deal with emotional waves
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It's 4pm and I'm standing with my family at the nurse's office next to a pediatrician, while my son is on the verge of a panic attack.
Both me and my wife just got a flu shot and his younger sister did as well. Now it's his turn, and from the look on his face, I know this isn't gonna be easy. What do you do when something similar happens with your child? How would you help him or her deal with something that scares him so much? This is what we're going to talk about in today's episode. So let's go.
Hi, this is Episode Four of The Apparently Parent Podcast. My name is Eran Katz. And I'm really, really happy that you joined me on today's episode. And today I've got a special topic for you, we're going to talk about how you as a parent can help your child deal with anxiety. And especially, we're going to talk about your stance as a parent and where you put yourself in front of that anxiety of that child, and how you can position yourself to be a better facilitator of handling those anxieties, and those moments.
So when we have to face an anxious child, a lot of parents fall into one of two types of handling anxiety. On one corner, we have the demanding parent and on the other corner, we have the protecting parent. So who are they and what are the differences between the demanding parent and the protecting parent?
The demanding parent is the parent who wants the child to just deal with it, just do it. And they think that by doing so, by pushing the child into an action, the child will confront his or her fears and will be done with it, he will overcome those fears. And on the other hand, the protecting parent is the parent who wants to protect the child from experiencing the fear altogether. Those are the parents who tend to give up on asking the child to do something that scares him or her.
I started the episode with the story of my child, and we waited for him to get the flu shot and he's so scared. And it was literally on the verge of a panic attack, if not really inside of a panic attack. And if I would assume the stance of the demanding parent I will be the parent who tells him to man and to stop crying and just get the flu shot and be done with it, that it's gonna be over in a second, which is actually true, it's a pinprick, it doesn't hurt so much, but I wouldn't be able to help him with this if I only demanded that he deal with it by himself.
On the other hand, if I would have been this kind of a protecting parent, I would want to do everything in my power to prevent him from feeling any fear to the point of giving up altogether on getting the flu shot.
And the crucial thing here is not that one type of parenting is good and the other is bad, okay? They both come from quite well intentions of trying to help your children do something they have to do. However, they tend to come from our own personal way of handling things. And it's up to you, the parent, to understand how this plays out in order to put yourself in a better position to help your child handle his own fears and anxieties, and not inhibit him or herself from doing things in the world.
So in order to understand that, we need to understand the concept of The Interpersonal Barrier. Imagine an invisible force field, or some kind of membrane, that exists between you and your child. It's like some kind of a buffer zone. And you actually have this kind of buffer between yourself and everybody else in the world. Okay? It's like some kind of invisible force that surrounds you and goes with you wherever you go. And it's kind of a buffer between you and everybody else. But today we're focusing on the one between you and your child. In this barrier, its whole purpose is to be responsible for how much emotional information flows between you and other people.
So how much info how much emotional information flows between you and your child? What kind of emotional signals you receive from your child, what kind of emotional signals you put out, and your child receives from you, etc.
And like almost anything else in psychology, you can imagine a kind of a continuum running between having the barrier being too tight and too closed off. And on the other hand, the barrier being too loose to almost being non existent. And those two extremes define the flow between the demanding and the protecting parent. So in that example, the demanding parent is the parent whose interpersonal barrier is almost impregnable. Okay, which means this parent has a hard time receiving the emotional signals from the child and feeling it for him or herself. So it's easier for the demanding parent to dismiss the child's fear, to say something like “this is not really scary’ or “don't be a sissy” or “take a chill pill, just do it, man up, stop whining”. Phrases like that are the hallmarks of a demanding parent. And it's not like the demanding parent doesn't know the child is scared. He doesn't feel the fear of the child in his own body. He doesn't receive it as strongly as the child gets it. And those parents they mean well, they want the child to grow up. They want the child to handle things, to cope, but they don't notice the emotional need that the growing child has at that moment. And of course, the problem with that is that it only makes the child feel worse, if the child feels like failure. So instead of only feeling fear now the child feels shame and he tries to do something about this shame like not feeling it.
So the child may try to “man up” and deal with it, but he doesn't have the tools to do it. So again, there's another failure. So it's like this perpetual negative circle of fear and shame that is being toppled on top of this poor child. Eventually, the child is left feeling misunderstood, uncared for mistreated, and this is really not where you want your child to be, right?
And on the other hand, we have the protecting parents. So for the protecting parent, The Interpersonal Barrier is too thin, too permeable, sometimes like it's non existent on the extreme levels. And in that case, too much information, too much emotional information, goes between the parent and the child. So this is when the parent starts to feel the child exactly in his bones. To be scared as much as the child is scared, for example. And those parents tend to put themselves in the place of the child, which is what being empathic is like, we put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and we feel what they feel. However, this goes to an extreme and the parent, the protecting parent who wants to spare the anxious feelings from the child to the level, that it undermines the child's development because although it comes from a good place, it doesn't help the child grow up. It's not only protecting the child from hard feelings, it's also preventing the child from learning how to cope.
So, on one corner, we have the demanding parent who cannot feel what the child is feeling or dismisses what the child is feeling and thus is not in a good place to help the child cope. On the other corner we have the protecting parent who is so engrossed with the child’s emotions that he or she cannot help the child right? They can't help the child because they feel too much of what the child feels.
We need to find the middle ground. This is where I believe we should strive to be as parents. We should strive to be what I call The Supportive Parents. And the supportive parent, he has the same interpersonal barrier like everybody else, right? However, it is more balanced, it is permeable to some emotional signals and cues, but not too much. Some emotional information goes from the child to the parent, but not all of it. And the parent is able to sense the child's emotions of fear without being overwhelmed by it.
And it also means that the parents own emotions do not necessarily flow into the child, think about a parent who is anxious himself while trying to help his anxious child. It's totally fine to feel anxious, okay. But as attachment minded parents, you want to foster a sense of security in your child and that means you got to be kind of a secure base. You have to keep some of those emotions to yourself, some of those anxiety feelings for yourself without letting them speak into your child. In that way you can help your child deal with whatever he's going through.
So eventually, the supportive parent can on one hand acknowledge and validate the child's feeling. And on the other hand help the child deal with it and continue and do whatever needs to be done.
So let's go back to those moments in the nurse's office where I had a flu shot, my wife had a flu shot, our little daughter had one and now it's my son's turn. And he did get flu shots before. A year before and a year before that. But now, as a six years old, he got a little bit more scared. He's more aware of what's gonna happen, and how do we help him in that moment when he's really, really scared and he's pushing us away.
So the demanding parents will be the parent who will say “you have to do it” or “we have to do it, we have to get those shots. It's really important. You gotta do it. Now. just suck it up and be done with it”. And the protecting parent on the extreme will say something like, “Okay, I see you're scared. I feel scared myself. It is scary to get a flu shot. And I see you can’t do this right now. It's hard for me to see you so scared. Let's go home. Maybe we can try another time. Maybe we won't do it at all”.
And the supportive parents will be in a place that will say something like, “Look, honey, you are afraid, okay, and you're right to be afraid. After all, getting poked with a sharp object is a scary thing. However, it's totally safe, and I'm here to help you through it. Okay, so let's do this together”.
And while I do believe that, as parents, we should strive to be as supportive as possible, I do recognize that sometimes it's not always possible and in those moments in that nurse’s office, my interpersonal barrier was too thin. I immediately identified with him at that moment (and I hate getting shots myself). Seeing him scared so much and crying and telling us that he just needs another minute to cool down and another minute goes by and goes by. And there are other families waiting around. So I'm feeling kind of guilty towards other families and guilty towards the nurse. And also especially guilty towards him for pushing him into something that is so hard for him. I really, really hate that and identified with the anxiety so much that I started to think that this is going to do more harm than the benefit of getting the flu shot.
So eventually, we gave up. We told him “Look, you can’t do it, let's not do it. Let's go”. And I said to myself and to my wife that I'll try again with him next week. Maybe in another clinic, or we'll go back here, I don't know. And I had to really be compassionate with myself that in those moments I was the protecting parent, not in the best of ways And I'm talking about the protecting parent who couldn't really help his child. Eventually we went home with some sense of failure for him.
However, next week we went to another clinic. I found another clinic which was a little less crowded, and it was only him and me. And I took the time to explain to him beforehand what's going to happen and how we can relax his body. And that I'm going to be there with him all the time. And yeah, I even promised him a couple of donuts afterwards. I don't know if that was the right thing to do or not.
And it was really, really hard for him again. He didn't have a panic attack, but he was really scared. He was really anxious. His whole body was tense. And he asked to go to another room to calm down. And I sat with him. And we did some breathing exercises that I taught him and then he relaxed. And we went back to the nurse, and the minute she got close to him he got scared all over again. And we had to go back to the different room and relax again. And then we went back to her and he was scared again.
And then I just held him and I told him “Look, it's really scary. I know. But it doesn't really hurt. I know you're scared. There's nothing much else we can do about it, we got to do it, okay? But I'm here with you”. And he sat in my lap, and I held him and he got the flu shot. And he cried a little bit, and then it went away, the pain went away. And he really enjoyed this couple of donuts afterwards.
And I must admit that the thing that really helped me be in a position to help him was that I was able to still myself, I was able to be calmer because I was still in my own emotions. I was regulating my own emotions. And then my Interpersonal Barrier was a lot more balanced.
And I was able to feel his fears, to feel better that I'm making him do something that he really doesn't want to do, but not giving up on the important thing that was getting this vaccination. By the way, a couple of weeks later, he had to take another, different vaccination shot, this time in school, and while being anxious he managed to do it this time, it was a lot easier.
So now you're aware of this Interpersonal Barrier and you know about the demanding parent, the protective parent in the supporting parent. So think about it for a second. Where do you think you are? And remember not to be too judgy with yourself, okay? Cut yourself some slack.
If you identify yourself more on the demanding scale and it makes you feel lousy, that's okay. You're doing something that you're being more aware of and you can move from that position. And the same thing is true if you find yourself more in the protective aspect and you don't really like that. And I'm going to offer you a couple of things that you can do in order to help yourself move more towards the center, more towards the place of being a supportive parent instead of demanding or too protective.
And let's start with the demanding part. If you find yourself more inclined to be a demanding kind of parent, try to find times when you needed support. How did you feel when that support was not available as a child? Maybe this kind of memory of a flu shot springs to mind or another kind of medical situation, or something you had to do like a sports event or something of the sort. And you were scared a little bit, and you needed some kind of support and you didn't get one or you didn't get the kind of support that you needed to have.
And I really want you to take the time and try to imagine that situation as clearly as you can. And imagine the child that you've been: alone, not really supported. And try to find in yourself the compassion towards that child. You can try to really imagine how the present-you, the adult-you, comes to the past-you, to that child, and talks to that child. How would you help that child that you have been? What will you tell that child? What kind of advice do you have? Maybe you can offer just a hug. It doesn't really matter, just do whatever you can do to feel that compassion flowing between you and the child that you've been.
And then try to imagine your child instead of the past-you as a child that you see in your imagination, and see what that feels like. How does it feel to have this kind of support to the child you've been to the child you have now, just in your imagination. And if you are more inclined to be in the protective areas, try to remember that when you're experiencing your child's distress in your own self, you're actually feeling something that is based on your past experiences, most probably. Try to take a deep breath and imagine those situations when you didn't get the support that you needed from another place. Maybe you weren't helped to deal with your anxiety and you had to give up on something that you really wanted to do or had to do. Or you were pushed into doing something that you didn't want to do. Remember that something that was really hard to do, or maybe even traumatizing in a way, but remember that you're now the adult, you're not the same child that you used to be.
So again, try to be compassionate to the child who didn't have the support that they needed and you are now giving the support that your child needs. Imagine yourself with a stronger interpersonal barrier, not something that is closed completely, not like a wall of bricks, right? But not something too loose so you can feel your child's pain and emotions and anxiety. But you can also hold it at bay without getting overwhelmed, without getting it flooding over you, then you can be in a better position to help your child deal with whatever he or she has to do.
Eventually, the art of being a supportive parent boils down to the ability to hold the stress on one hand and move your child to act on another. And in moments of stress your child needs validation, they need to know that you can see their distress, that you believe it and you take it seriously. Phrases like “it's nothing”, “it's really easy”, “there is nothing to be afraid of”, they don't help here, okay? Because sometimes there is something to be afraid of.
On the other hand, your child needs to know that you're confident of their ability to cope, and that you will be there for them and you will help them cope without pushing them too far to do something that they really are unable to do without your support and also without avoiding anything that they really have to do.
Because if you say or do something that encourages giving up, this can really perpetuate the hopelessness your child feels, and this feeling can go with them. Then in later years, this feeling can come back, the feeling that I was unable to do it in, or I'm not able to do it, I'm too weak, I'm too afraid, I'm too shy, whatever.
So what can you do? You can offer a phrase such as “Yeah, you're right. But we will help you to get over this. And we will show you how”, for example. And remember, you can always contact a psychotherapist who knows how to handle the situation and get some counseling, get some guidance to help you deal with anxiety and how you can instill more confidence in your children.
And one simple thing that you can do right now is go to the show notes of this episode. It's on apparentlyparent.com/4. And there you can download The SAFER Formula cheat sheet. It's a cheat sheet that I prepared for you. And it offers a really really simple formula with the acronym SAFER that shows you the exact steps that need to be done in order to help your child deal with something that scares him or her. So again, go to apparentlyparent.com/4 and you'll see the button to download The SAFER Formula cheat sheet. It's free, just click on the button and download it.
So where you are right now, do feel like you can be more of a supportive parent? The next time you have to do something scary with your child can you feel the interpersonal barrier between you and your child? How strong is it? How permeable is it? What do you think? Let me know I love to hear from you. You can contact me on Instagram. Go to apparentlyparent on Instagram and just DM me over there. I'd love to hear from you. And that brings us to the end of this episode. I want to really thank you for listening to this show. It really means a lot to me that you take the time to do this, and that you take the time to help yourself help your children like that. It's really moving, to be honest. And please, if you haven't done so already, please subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts on. Apple podcast, Spotify, wherever, wherever. That way you'll never miss an episode. New episodes come every Thursday. And if you enjoy this episode, if you think it's helpful, I'd love if you could share it or send it to someone who will find it useful. Please, I would like to ask you to go to Apple podcasts and leave an honest review. Just search for The Apparently Parent Podcast and on rates and reviews, give how many stars you feel like and write whatever you feel like, even if it's not that raving and good, that's fine, I can handle it and I want to handle it and learn more about your needs and what you want to make this show better for you guys. And it will also help you get in front of more people. So I would love that if you could do it. And again, the show notes for these episodes are on apparentlyparent.com/4. You'll find the download link for The SAFER Formula and the transcript of this episode, and other stuff. And I will see you again next week. Bye bye.
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The Apparently Parent Podcast
On this show, I share with you my perspectives and experience of parenting and psychology.
Enhance your understanding of the relationship with your child and yourself by learning about attachment, mindful and playful parenting mindset and techniques.
Listen to me sharing my knowledge and experience both as a parent and a therapist, as well as interviews with parenting experts from around the world.
Your Host – Eran Katz
I’m a clinical psychologist and parenting counselor specializing in attachment theory. I’m also the father of two children who are my best parenting teachers.
I believe that parenting is one of the most important jobs we ever do. This is why I created Apparently Parent and The Parenting MAP. My goal in life is to help as many parents as possible become 21st Century Parents, moving from chaos to harmony and building an enduring, meaningful relationship with their children.