It was my 7-year-old Juno’s first sleepover. She was having so much fun with her cousin Alicia whom she rarely sees, so they were sleeping over at my in-laws, who live close by.
I could see her struggle; I assured her she could call me anytime she wanted, and I would come to get her. She was worried about having a nightmare, and I wouldn’t be there to comfort her. I gave her Shadow, her stuffed husky, to protect her.
The following day, I picked her up. She said she woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to call me. But she didn’t because her desire to play with Alicia the next day was stronger than her fears.
“When kids ask for lots of reassurance and need it constantly, they seek certainty. This thing runs in families,” said licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Lynn Lyons during the 2021 Positive Parenting webinar of AFineParent.com. “Worried people want certainty and comfort right away. Anxious parents have a big impact on children. They model their worry to their children. So don’t say, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ because worry likes that.”
Lyons has taken a particular interest in breaking the generational cycle of worry in families, coauthoring books on anxiety: “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children” and the companion book for kids, “Playing with Anxiety: Casey’s Guide for Teens and Kids.”
Lyons explained that the trouble with modern anxiety is the expectation of what will happen, which are not real fears. We become hypervigilant, imagining the possibilities. Since it’s unsettling, we work hard to eliminate it, and that’s the problem.
We can’t see the future, so how do we handle it? How do we accept uncertainty and not hoist it to a level where we freak out and run away?
Instead of passing on our anxieties to our kids, we can teach them how to problem-solve. We can normalize feeling unsure or nervous, such as when we’re leaving home for the first time, but it’s not a crisis.
When we avoid things we’d typically be doing, like going to school or making new friends, we kowtow to worry’s demands. It’s shortsighted and sweeps the problem under the rug.
If your child doesn’t want to sleep alone, don’t feed the worry by inviting her to sleep with you. Lyons also advised refraining from reassuring. If they’ve got “Will you pick me up?” on loop, you’re enabling their anxiety. She said that preparing and planning are okay, but don’t get caught in the reassurance trap.
Developing internal reassurance
Acknowledge it when things don’t go as planned: “This sucks. But let’s see what we can do.”
Children end up not trusting their voices when parents continue being the source of reassurance. Adults with hang-ups from childhood still seek the same affirmation.
How much of anxiety is nature or nurture? Lyons said that parents could nurture kids into or out of worry. Temperament is genetically mediated, predictive of later anxiety if left to flourish. So shy, introverted, quiet parents can pass on the same traits. But it’s also up to parents to show their children how to move in the world.
She added that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder have a strong predisposition: “You can be a worrier, but keep it in check, so they won’t have to suffer the way you did. It can be contagious. We have the best of intentions, but it doesn’t help.”
Accommodation without any skill building doesn’t benefit our kids either. The more we enable our children’s worries, the more we support the disorder. When we reorganize the world for our kids, we work for anxiety.
Instead, we have to teach them how to tolerate not knowing. Giving kids the freedom to figure things out without stepping in too soon is how they learn problem-solving and stomach uncertainty. As they build up the skills, parents can slowly pull away as children become independent. But front-load with a lot of teaching and information before removing support.
Keep it real with your kids and admit that sometimes, worry will show up; no one can avoid it. But it helps to personify it to create distance from it and externalize it. Understand its tactics and make it predictable and get bored with it. Recognize what worry does. Change their relationship with fear by demystifying it.
Step into different uncomfortable situations, so they get to practice. Let them experience things not going the way they expect, fail, and learn that they can handle it.
Enter a worrisome experience and respond differently. If your child’s afraid of the dark, invite them to stay in their dark room but take on a persona of being on the offense: “C’mon darkness, what have you got? Really? That’s it?”
“But don’t throw them off the deep end and expect them to know how to swim,” warned Lyons. “Make it playful because humor and silliness are the opposite of what worry wants. You can fake it when you begin. Role-play.”
With older kids, teach them to distance themselves from this thinking pattern. Lyons calls this the content trap, focusing on what they’re worrying about instead of handling their worry.
She advises older children to expect worry to appear so they can handle it and not catastrophize when it shows up. “When it does appear, it will say the same things it will say. Acknowledge it, then pivot and get on with what you need to tackle.” Get comfortable being uncomfortable and normalize uncertainty.
Do a post-game analysis after a worrisome situation with a loving, playful connection. Ask: “What can we work on again? What wasn’t as hard as you thought?” Remind them that the exercise is about them learning about themselves and takes some practice.
Said Lyons, “Anxiety is about rigidity; things have to go a certain way. It’s bossy. Sometimes, being rigid is not up for discussion, like wearing your seatbelt or helmet. Worry demands we take it seriously, so step back from it. Celebrate wins, stay playful, and be encouraging.” —CONTRIBUTED