How to Support Your Child Through Anxiety

Seeing your child deal with anxiety can be hard. Usually, we don't know how to actually help them so we either tell them to just deal with it or we try to over-protect them by taking over. In this post we will talk about the difference between demanding and protective parenting and the benefits of supportive parenting for helping your child deal with anxiety.

“Well, he just to jump into the water! He does know how to swim, so why won’t he just jump in and do it? I don’t get what’s wrong with him!”

In these words, Diana expressed her feelings about the anxiety her son Chris was showing (as always, this story is not real, but based on several actual clients I worked with). Chris, an eleven years old boy, was usually a pretty confident and independent child.

He used to come back from school and handle himself until his parents came back from their jobs. But recently, after he heard about some burglary cases in the neighborhood, he started feeling scared to stay home alone.

At first, Chris just asked to go to a friend’s house after school or invited friends to come back with him to his home. But obviously, that was not a sustainable solution. When his friends were not available, he called his parents and asked them repeatedly to come back home sooner.

Diana and her husband Dan couldn’t change their working hours accordingly and don't know how to handle the new situation. They were also quite surprised by the intensity of Chris’ fears, so they came to me for consultation.

It was obvious, from the first session, how big is the gap between Diana and Dan regarding Chris’ fear. Diana was impatient and demanded I see Chris as soon as possible so I could “take this fear away”. She was convinced Chriss is over-reacting and exaggerating. “He just needs to deal with it and things will work out on their own”, she said.

Dan, on the other hand, was more worried about Chris and thought there was more to the situation than just a normal fear. Every time Dan received a phone call from a frightened Chris, he himself felt anxious and stressed. He was actually suggesting they hire a nanny to take care of Chris after school.

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Demanding Parenting VS. Protecting Parenting

Diana and Dan, with their different approaches, show us the tension between the position of the demanding parent and that of the protective parent. They also show us the meaning of what I call “The Interpersonal Frontier” that exist between you and your child.

You can think of this frontier as an unseen membrane, a buffer zone if you will, they exist between you and your child. (Actually, you have this area between you and everyone of significance in your life). This layer protects us from experiences that come to us from other people – their feelings, thoughts, etc. How permeable this layer is different for each person.

As parents, this layer defines how affected are we by our child's experiences and how much of it do we let in.

Generally, you can think of yourself as moving on a continuum between two opposites. The Demanding Parent is on one end and The Protective Parent is on the other end.

For the demanding parent, the interpersonal frontier is almost impregnable. Therefore, he has a hard time receiving and really feel the child’s experience. This parent tends to push the child into action without taking the child’s emotional state into account, and without giving the emotional support the child needs.

Diana tends to be a demanding parent, as she has a hard time validating Chris’ actual distress. When she demands he just “man up”, “take a chill pill” or “just jump into the water”, she means well, but she’s taking a course that will not help her child deal with the situation.

Usually, throwing these demands on a stressed child will only make him or her feel worse. They will feel frightened, misunderstood and unsupported. This will lead to more frustration on the child part and more anger on the parent part, in a horrible magic cycle.

For the protecting parent, the interpersonal frontier is too permeable. Too much of the child experience goes through into the parent. Therefore, this parent tends to feel the child’s stress as if it’s his own.

The protective parent tends to put himself in the child’s place, to spare his child from coping altogether. In this example, Dan is a protective parent and he has a hard time accepting Chris’ fears. He feels the stress in his own body and soul and does whatever he can to prevent Chris from feeling it.

You might say that protecting our kids is part of our job as parents, and you will be 100% right. However, if being protective means preventing our kids from dealing with their distress, we might hurt their sense of agency and confidence and their fears and anxiety may spread to other areas.

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To better help children deal with their challenges, you should adopt the stance of The Supportive Parent. The supportive parent has the same interpersonal frontier, but it is moderated. It is permeable enough so you can sense what your child is feeling but strong enough so it won’t overwhelm you.

The supportive parent can acknowledge the child’s hardship and validate the child’s negative feelings on one hand, and help him deal with the situation on the other. The child will obviously have to deal with his or her stress and fears, but with the support of the parent, he can make it.

If we take what Diana said at the beginning of the post and think of a child who is standing on a jumping board above a pool, afraid to take the jump,, we can clearly see the differences between the demanding, the protective and the supportive parents.

  • The demanding parent will tell the child to “just suck it up and jump”.
  • The protective parents will tell the child that “it is scary and you’d better just climb down”.
  • The supportive parents will tell the child that “jumping is scary, but I believe you can make it and I’m here for you”. He might also suggest the child will start from the lower jumping board.
supportive parenting child anxiety

How to Better Support Your Child Through Anxiety

If you want to move to the middle of the continuum and be a more supportive parent, the first thing you need to do is notice where you are. Are you closer to the demanding or the protective pole? Sometimes, just this acknowledgment does a lot to help you say goodbye to a rigid stance.

If you are more inclined to the demanding pole, try to find times in your life when you needed support, and how did you feel when that support was not available.

Imagine the child that you’ve been, alone and not supported, and find in yourself the compassion towards that child. Really imagine how the present-you come to the past-you and help that child. With words, advice, a hug, it doesn’t matter. Feel that compassion flowing. Then, try to imagine your child instead of that you-child.

If you are more in the protective areas, try to remember that when you are experiencing your child’s distress in your own self, you are actually feeling something that is based on your past experience.

It doesn’t have to be what your child is feeling. It’s true that your child is in distress, I’m not saying you need to disengage from that. But remember that it is the child who is in distress and he or she needs you as a secure base.

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Take a deep breath, imagine the interpersonal frontier that stands between you and your child. Imagine how you can feel his or her pain without being flooded by it.

In moments of stress, your child needs validation, first and foremost. They need to know that you can see their distress, that you believe it and take it seriously. Phrases like “It’s nothing” or “There’s nothing to be afraid about” will not help here.

On the other hand, they need to know that you are confident of their ability to cope and that you will be there for them. If you say or do something the encourage giving up (like hiring a nanny to stay with Chris after school) can perpetuate the hopelessness your child feels.

The art of being a supportive parent comes to the ability to hold the distress on one hand and move your child to act on the other.

You can do it with a phrase such as “You are right. It is scary. But we will help you get over this, and we will show you how”. And remember, you can always contact a psychotherapist who knows how to handle these situations for guidance.

While working with Diana, Dan and Chris, I focused on two levels. First, my work with Chris focused on learning what anxiety is, how it rises up and why, and developing tools to deal better with the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that came up when he was home alone.

Second, my work with his parents dealt with normalizing what anxiety is and looking at each of the parents’ stance on the demanding-protecting continuum.

Talking with the parents on their own past experiences helped them realize how they each got to where they are. By learning to observe themselves compassionately and empathically, and looking at the children they themselves used to be, both Diana and Dan were able to move flexibly to a place that was much more supportive towards Chris. Then we were all able to help Chris get used to staying home alone in a gradual way until he was free of that anxiety altogether.

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