Got Anxiety? A recipe for parenting the anxious child
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
Although once thought to be primarily a disorder seen only in adults, it is increasingly recognized that anxiety disorders are commonly evidenced in children, often as early as 5 years of age.
When treating anxious children within our clinical practice, our treatment protocols always include teaching the child’s PARENTS various tools for helping their child acquire strategies for better managing anxiety.
Remember, in most cases, “anxious children — anxious parents.” Therefore, the following metaphors serve as a means for helping anxious parents, when needing to employ specific strategies during interactions with their anxious child.
When using this metaphor, the parent is asked to recall several ingredients needed when baking a chocolate cake. Answers usually include, “butter, eggs, sugar, chocolate chips, etc.”
We then ask which ingredient makes the cake taste “best.” The most frequent response is, “chocolate chips.” Our last question — “what might the cake taste like if a dull ingredient such as flour was omitted from the recipe?”
The message within this metaphor is that just as there are several ingredients needed for baking a tasty cake, many variables combine that result in a child who displays anxious tendencies.
Parents are asked to generate a list of ingredients which might create an anxious child. This recipe includes: genetic predisposition, environmental factors, parenting styles, traumatic life events, etc. One’s genetics is tough to change, so it makes more sense to target the style in which a parent interacts with his or her anxious child.
Thus, the manner in which parents RESPOND to their child’s anxiety is the KEY ingredient for bringing about successful outcomes, and is also the most amenable to change. Once this belief is recognized, the following metaphors are presented as additional “food for thought.”
‘Dragon in the Mountain’
The default response for those who experience anxiety is to avoid anything which triggers their anxious arousal. Unfortunately, avoidance becomes the problem, not the solution.
The following metaphor helps to reinforce this concept. Years ago, a group of people resided in a remote location at the base of a mountain. At the top of this mountain there existed a forest filled with enough food to feed hundreds of people for years to come.
Although the villagers had been without nourishment for weeks, they were afraid to journey up the mountain top to gather food, due to reports that a killer bear roamed the area.
At the point of starvation, one person decided to risk “going up the mountain.” In doing so, he discovered that no bears resided within this forest; it was simply an assumption, based on rumor alone, void of facts.
Until then, no one had ever questioned the possibility that this rumor may be inaccurate. This metaphor helps parents encourage their children to approach acceptable risks centered on uncertainty; a construct that typically triggers anxiety.
Once avoidance is replaced with curiosity, uncertainty is better tolerated, and assumptions regarding catastrophic outcomes are unveiled as inaccurate.
Anxiety in children is often inadvertently reinforced when parents model their own anxious behaviors in the presence of their children. Because of this, we present the following metaphor.
In situations where you find yourself feeling very anxious, be careful not to communicate this to your child. A parent’s non-verbal behaviors (body language, facial expressions, etc.) often act as a trigger for their child’s emotions, particularly with respect to perceiving threat, when no real threat exists.
In this situation, we ask parents to put on their “Botox Face” by imagining one of their favorite TV personalities who has obviously had a great deal of “face work” performed, disabling him or her from showing a single flicker of emotion.
The parent is encouraged to imagine they cannot move any muscle in their body (particularly their facial muscles), such that they are unable to show any indication related to feeling anxious.
Indeed, they are encouraged to give the “Oscar-winning performance” of their life! This example is also used in situations in which a parent is being taught the strategy of “planned ignoring,” when dealing with their young child’s attention-seeking tantrums.
The parent is instructed to remove ALL forms of attention during the outburst. Unfortunately, many make the crucial mistake, during the course of the temper outburst, of saying to their child … “I’m ignoring you.”
Whoops! The parent forgot to put on their “Botox Face,” the same face that is needed when mom or dad is feeling anxious, yet needs to model effective coping skills for helping their child to lower the probability of perceived threat, while increasing levels of confidence for handling life events that, in the past, had been perceived as too risky to approach.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.