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Family Anxiety About Returning to Normal

I’ve been hearing a LOT of growing panic about re-entry into school, almost entirely from adults.

On the one hand, I’m noting worry’s usual desire for certainty. But, I also see this as a great opportunity for adults to teach and reinforce some important skills about flexibility and stepping in.

So talking and planning for re-entry is a good thing…if we use it for skill-building and check our own anxiety first. As we look forward to the next phase of parenting through this pandemic, it’s a very timely reminder.

In this excerpt from Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, Reid and I talk about safety crutches.

Research shows that teaching children how to problem solve reduces the chance that they will develop an anxiety disorder. How? Because when families stop focusing on what bad might happen and stop planning for every eventual disaster, imaginations within the family are free to explore creative solutions and adventures. When we promote problem solving in our families, then we teach our children to think when facing a difficult event rather than simply reacting with panic and avoidance.

To help your children build their inner strength, you will need to look at how they currently lean on supports that keep them dependent at the very times when they need to grow a sense of independence. We use the term “crutches” to label the ways that children restrict their activities in order to stay safe. When children lean on crutches repeatedly, they reinforce their belief of, “I can’t handle this on my own.” Instead of facing new adventures, crutches offer them multiple ways to avoid them.

What do you do when an upper shelf is just out of reach? Do you grab a stool, or ask for help from that taller guy? How about when you’re ready to buy a new car but you’re having trouble sorting out the pros and cons of the many choices? Do you take guidance from Consumer Reports? What if you aren’t confident negotiating with that salesperson? Do you ask your cousin to be your wingman as you haggle with the dealership?

Support, Not Crutches

When we doubt our ability to handle a task, we automatically start looking for support. That’s completely normal and expected. Our kids operate just like us: they create strategies to keep new or uncomfortable activities from overwhelming them.  For instance, the first time your child spends the night at a friend’s house, he may call you three or four times during the evening, “just to check in.” Those few calls help him to stay all night and then proudly say the next morning, “I did it!”

The skill of reaching out for support is quite handy as our children tackle new adventures. It allows them to feel more secure when they take risks, and to develop a sense of personal control as they move through each new stage of development. Nightlights, blankets, and stuffed toys are all examples of crutches that young children use in a normal and helpful way.

But there is a backside to this reaching out for support. As soon as the need to feel in control and secure consistently becomes the top priority, a crutch is no longer a normal part of developing and growing. When seeking security becomes more important than exploring—when kids start to hesitate, to become dependent on others, and to back away from adventures—then we have a problem.

Obviously none of us wants our children to suffer. But our kids need to push through their insecurities, not get rid of them. If we act on our desire to remove their pain, we slide down that slippery slope of trying to eliminate their insecurities instead of teaching them how to be courageous. Before we know it, we’re driving them to school instead of helping them take the bus, we’re sitting in their bedroom every single night until they’ve fallen asleep, we’re giving them our moment-by-moment schedule when we leave home to run an errand.

Anxiety’s Crutches

Crutches literally support us when we are weak, often while we recover or build up strength. Sounds good, right? Not so in the world of worry, because over time the dependence on worry crutches tends to increase rather than decrease. Continually leaning on crutches actually strengthens anxiety. How?  Every time we use a crutch, we mentally review that there is danger lurking around the corner, and we attribute our ability to handle the danger to the external “crutch” rather than our own internal coping abilities. 

For example, a child thinks, “Mom has to wait in the hall until I get settled in class. Because if she doesn’t, I could get terribly anxious and need her, and she wouldn’t be there, and I’d fall apart.” And then she demands mom serve as her crutch. So mom agrees to wait outside the classroom door for fifteen minutes before she leaves. Nothing goes wrong. No panic.  No screaming child running out of the class and clinging to mom. What does the child conclude? He doesn’t think, “Hey, see that? I can stay in the classroom without falling apart.” When everything goes well and he has no distress, he concludes, “Boy, good thing mom stayed outside the door. I could have really had trouble if she had left!” Parents might come to the same conclusion. “He did well today. I’m glad I stayed. My presence really helped him manage.” Worry crutches strengthen worry. They don’t strengthen children.

All kids will use supportive objects and people from time to time. Some will help them successfully move through a new developmental phase, and others will hold them back by causing them to doubt themselves. As we focus on the importance of stepping into new territories, your job is to learn the difference between the supports that help and those that hinder. Just as any physical therapist teaches a patient to move from bed to walker to full mobility after knee surgery, you must be willing to move your child away from the crutches that anxiety demands. Toward what? Independence. And just as those first steps after knee surgery feel uncomfortable and even scary, you both will initially feel unsure and unsteady while you practice and integrate new strengths.  

As you are moving through life with your child, pay attention to the crutches you have in place that support anxiety’s agenda. Technology, for example, has allowed crutches to become moment-to-moment strengtheners of anxiety. Children who are fearful of riding the bus home from school (“Other kids might be mean, the bus driver could miss my stop, you might not be home when I get off, I could leave my books on the seat…”) are given cell phones, and can thus call a parent repeatedly along the bus route (or even stay connected to Mom the whole time, if desired.) Anxious parents often promote the use of the phone to make sure their child is safe. We’ve had several parents who require a child to text every fifteen or thirty minutes when away from home. This tells the child, “I need to know where you are and what you’re doing, and I must participate and approve of all the small decisions you’re making throughout your day.” Before you intervene in your child’s struggles, ask yourself, “Am I promoting independence? Or am I encouraging dependence?”

What are you modeling for your kids?

Sometimes the best thing we can do to help our kids’ anxieties is to check in on our own patterns. Some we know we do. Others might slip by.

Join me for a live small group workshop on March 6th. In this virtual format, I will help you understand the seven patterns of worry, how they show up, and how you can disrupt them. Register now!

This is a live version of The Anxiety Audit, a self-paced course I made for parents to help us break the habits we acquired in 2020. We can be much more helpful to our families when we understand our responses and learn to manage them. That’s the best stuff to model.