As a parent, your instinct is to protect. Your sense of empathy, when it comes to your children, is basically on steroids. We feel their pain, their struggles, their joys and their successes. Waiting in the side lines is one of the hardest thing ever for a parent. But when it comes to anxiety in children, your involvement may be doing more harm then good.
Parents, in their eagerness to help, can validate an anxious child’s feeling of angst through positive reinforcement. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that parents who try to help their children deal with fear-provoking situations may actually be reinforcing rather than reducing the child’s fear. For example, some parents may allow their child to avoid the unpleasant situation or perhaps they may step in and tell them exactly what to do. It turns out that facing our fear and dealing with the situation in our own terms is the best way to desensitize ourselves.
What Parents Can Do to Help Their Anxious Child
So what’s a parent to do? The researchers suggest that parents look out for the small natural steps that their anxious child is taking to deal with the situation and reward those behaviors with praise. If your child is afraid of talking to other kids on the playground and you see him smiling at some kids, you could say something like: “I noticed you smiling at those kids on the playground. It’s a great first step to talking to people.” Nonverbal communication can go a long way as well. If you see your child doing something that’s difficult for him, you can just make eye contact with him and smile. It lets him know that you noticed and that you approve of his effort. Some of my kids have a fear of heights. By using some of these techniques, they have gone from not wanting their feet off the ground to reaching the top a climbing wall at our local gym. They now ask to go rock climbing.
Stepping away, letting them conquer their fear on their own terms, and praising their efforts in subtle ways can be very powerful.