Children with anxiety can be very fragile and helping them cope may seem like your own parenting Everest. If you’re trying to ease your child’s anxiety and encourage them to work through their fears and worries, there is one major tip you need that will be the key to overcoming their anxious feelings: do not let your child avoid the thing they feel anxious about.
“Avoidance,” said Dr. Robin Alter, a child psychologist who specializes in anxiety, “is really the best cure for anxiety — and I say that completely facetiously. It may be the best way to keep your child comfortable, but that’s just going to lead to them avoiding more and more things.”
Dr. Alter gives the example of a child not wanting to go to a friend’s birthday party, whether it be the fear of separation from you or a worry that they won’t fit in or have fun. “Sometimes parents give in, thinking, ‘Well it’s not such a big deal if we don’t go to that one birthday party since he’s anxious about it,’ but it basically tells your child that avoidance is a good strategy and reinforces their anxiety and this pattern of staying away from the things they fear.” Avoiding a worry-inducing activity just one time will communicate to your child that they are validated in feeling anxious and that they should continue to keep themselves removed from the things that make them feel panicked.
“Children can be manipulative when it comes to their anxiety. They want to control situations so that they can avoid what they fear.”
These situations — for example, a bellyache before school magically disappears as soon as you tell them they can play hooky — are not going to help your child in the long run. “Children can be pretty manipulative when it comes to their anxiety,” Dr. Alter told us. “They want to control situations so that they can avoid what they fear, but I always encourage parents to stand their ground and not allow avoidance to win with the small things, because they’ll be putting themselves in a much better position for the bigger things, the deeper issues.”
Dr. Alter gave us a couple of tips to help your child to — for a lack of a better term — avoid avoidance. First, don’t look at this as “picking your battles.” While picking battles is usually more about a parent-child power struggle, not giving in to avoidance is about teaching your child positive life strategies. You don’t want your child to use avoidance as their main coping mechanism, or life will start to become very narrow for them (and they will likely become more fearful along the way).
Second, pay attention to the things your child expresses anxiety about and the situations they try desperately to avoid. Look for themes — are they avoiding social scenarios, or are they trying to stay away from certain activities, like sports? Finding the common thread between their worries and the things they’re avoiding can help you to problem-solve and work through their anxiety in a positive and constructive way.