Is your child anxious about the start of the new school year? I am thrilled today to bring you a guest article from Betsy Carmichael. Betsy is a clinical social worker who works with a variety of kids, teens, and adults at her outpatient psychotherapy practice, Alvord, Baker & Associates, LLC. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (CBT) for anxiety and panic, helping clients and families recognize challenging patterns and develop alternative thought and behavior strategies. She also specializes in the treatment of body focused repetitive behaviors such as hair pulling and skin picking.
What teacher will I have next year? What if I strike out at bat? Will you check on me before bed? Any parent can tell you that kids ask questions about things they feel nervous or anxious about. This is called reassurance seeking. For most kids, the reassuring question is asked, parent answers, and the child feels comforted and moves on. For some anxious and special needs kids, however, reassurance seeking can become excessive. The child hears the reassurance, but it’s in one ear and out the other; the child does not absorb the meaning.
Reassurance seeking is an important issue to address in kids health as well-meaning parents think they are doing the right thing by constantly telling their child everything will be OK, or there’s nothing to worry about. It turns out that for an anxious child, these statements can backfire. Parents who provide constant reassurance inadvertently teach their child that she cannot cope on her own. The child learns that she needs her parent to feel better. Typically, the child needs more and more reassurance as time goes on.
Let’s take an example: a 10 year old boy planned to attend sleep-away camp in August. He felt nervous about all aspects of camp- the counselors, the kids, the food, the bunks, etc. Every time he talked to his mom about it, she reassured him that everything would be fine. She repeatedly told him that he would have no problem making friends and adjusting. The boy felt mildly better for a few hours after each reassuring episode, then when he thought about camp again, he would repeat the process of asking his Mom if everything would work out. This conversation loop continued, becoming more frequent, as camp drew closer. The boy became increasingly anxious about the experience and lost many nights of sleep. Once at camp, he had an OK time, but struggled to connect with others and often felt left out. He felt frustrated and betrayed by his mom who had assured him things would turn out well.
If you have an emotionally challenged or special needs child who struggles with worry or anxiety, consider the value of not providing excessive reassurance. Here’s what you can do instead:
- Explain to your child that her questions are really just her Worry Brain talking. Define the difference between Worry Brain and Smart Brain, noting that when we use our Smart Brains, we think more realistically and balanced. Say to your child: “Sounds like your Worry Brain is in charge right now. Let’s try to shift to your Smart Brain and hear what She has to say.”
- Teach kids to answer their own questions. Try saying: “I’m confident you know the answer to this! What might you say to yourself that helps you feel better?” If they can’t think of anything, say, “What might I say to you that would help you feel better?”
- Tell your child that you are going to help her feel more confident and to do this you will not answer any more questions about the feared event or activity. Then, IGNORE. As hard as it is, ignore any further questions your child may have. You can remind her of your pledge to help her with her anxiety. Do not break your promise; consistency is key!
- Encourage your child to have a plan for when challenges arise. How can she manage if faced with her worry? Teaching your child the power to cope, even if the outcome is not positive, gives your child agency and opens the door to a growth mindset- she can make choices to improve her situation; she is not stuck.
- Praise your child when you hear her reassuring herself, answering her own questions, or overall asking fewer questions than you would expect. You can say, “Hey, I noticed that you haven’t asked me any questions about your upcoming lacrosse tryout. I can tell you’re reassuring yourself- well done!”
About Fitness for Health:
Does your child need a little extra confidence going into the new school year? Fitness for Health can help! At Fitness for Health, we design our kids’ health and fitness for kids programs to help children develop the skills—and the self-confidence—they need for real life. We do it through our unique Success Builds Success approach, which encourages children learn to take new risks through small, achievable—and wildly fun—challenges.
Our programs are designed to help children shape the skills that other fitness for kids programs tend to ignore, including mental processing, motor planning, visual information processing and proprioception (the ability to innately sense your body’s position, movement and spatial orientation) in addition to offering athletic training for kids.
Have a happy and safe new school year!
Rapee, R.M., Wignall, A., Spence, S.H., Cobham, V., & Lyneham, H. (2008). Helping Your Anxious Child Second Edition: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Zucker, B. (2017). Anxiety-Free Kids: An Interactive Guide for Parents and Children. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press Inc.