As parents we often feel helpless when we see our children suffer from anxiety and exhibit fears relating to issues that they aren’t yet prepared to deal with on their own. We immediately want to accommodate our children when they ask if we can stand by their side when they are most afraid. It makes perfect sense to us that our duty to our children would be to hold their hand to help them through anxious moments, right? Wrong…at least according to a new study by the Yale Child Study Center. As it turns out, standing by your child’s side every time they have a fearful moment not only makes the situation worse, but it also hinders your child from learning how to handle stress on his or her own.
As children go through their growth phases, they often find themselves in the middle of moments that are new to them. These unfamiliar moments create a certain level of stress that children often find hard to deal with. Naturally, children seek the support and protection of their parents when they are afraid, and as such, parents often respond by being the protector they can’t help but be when it comes to their children. We allow our children to sleep with us when they are afraid, we stand outside the bathroom door if they ask due to their fear of being alone, and we often refuse to place our children in situations that might heighten their anxiety. This sounds nice, but according to recent studies held at Yale University, this is the complete opposite of what we should do to help our anxious children.
New studies suggest that we allow our children to go through the anxious moments alone, when possible, so that they will learn how to handle stressful situations on their own. “Accommodations lead to worse anxiety in children rather than less anxiety,” says Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine. “When you provide a lot of accommodation, the unspoken message is, ‘You can’t do this, so I’m going to help you,’” Lebowitz continued. This understanding led the researchers at Yale to begin a program where they trained parents how to handle their own ability to change their desire to control their children’s anxious moments. By changing how a parent viewed their child’s anxiety, the researchers felt they would ultimately help to change how children dealt with the stress in their lives.
A study of the approach being utilized in the Yale program appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry last month. It praised Lebowitz and his team for their ability to run experiments to compare cognitive behavioral therapy for the child with parent-only training. Teaching parents to change their own attitude about anxiety indirectly helps the children to deal with the anxiety that they face. “Telling children that they can tolerate that anxiety and they don’t need to be rescued from it is what will help the child to face their fears,” Lebowitz says.
It won’t be easy the first time you attempt to step aside and empower your child through their anxious moments. You will fight your own urge to control the situation, thinking that you are helping your child by easing their fears. If it helps, simply think about the fact that your ability to step aside and empower your child will grant them the opportunity to solve their own problems throughout their lives. This should be enough to make any parent learn the power of will-power for the sake of their child.