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To Push or Not to Push: How to Help Your Child Deal with the Inevitable Stresses of Life

By Kathryn D. Boger, PhD, ABPP

August 11, 2015 Print

Some kids acclimate quickly to new situations. They express excitement about meeting their new classmates at the start of the school year, jump right into the mix at birthday parties, and easily adapt if and when their regular routine is disrupted. For other kids, change is challenging. If your child fits into this latter category, you have a tougher job as a parent. Here are some tips for supporting the child who is behaviorally inhibited, struggles with transitions, and shies away in the face of new people and places.

Avoid Avoidance

Stock photoWhat do you do when your child backs out of a playdate the night before because he’s too scared to go to his friend’s house? As a mother, I know that it’s very tempting to call the other parent and cancel; but we know from research and experience that avoidance breeds more avoidance.

By letting your child stay home, you would be telling him, “You can’t handle it.” Instead, I suggest gradually building up to the playdate by setting smaller goals and praising each step along the way. For example, you might sit down with your child and outline a “bravery chart” with smaller steps leading to the ultimate goal of the playdate; he could start with a playdate in your home, then in the friend’s home with you present, then a short one alone, etc.

Model Calm

When your child is crying hysterically and shaking, it’s easy to get anxious, frustrated, angry, discouraged, embarrassed or all of the above. It’s even easier to lose it when you share some of your child’s anxieties (read: “maybe something bad will happen to him if I leave him there”). But in the face of uncertainty, kids look to their parents as guides, and they can be perceptive little buggers. Try to model calm and confidence through the tone and volume of your voice, your body language, and your facial expressions, even when you want to pull your own hair out. Think of a few things that are relaxing to you (breathing, counting, using self-validating thoughts like, “this is just my anxiety, my child is ok,” and imagining vacation scenes far, far away) and try them—repeatedly—until you find one that takes the edge off. When all else fails, faking it works too.

Refocus Attention on Approach (i.e., “Brave”) Behavior

It’s surprisingly easy to get stuck focusing on kids’ anxious behaviors and reassuring them in relation to their fears. Yet reassurance tends to just reinforce anxiety. Instead, it’s important to acknowledge the emotion and then refocus your attention and praise on brave behaviors or even small efforts toward brave behavior. For example, after acknowledging your child’s anxiety, try to shift the emphasis by saying something like, “It sounds like you are feeling really afraid of going to Sam’s house. What are two brave steps you could take to combat your fear?”

Seek Help if the Anxiety Takes Over

If your child’s anxiety seems to be pervading one or more areas, including school, relationships, or extracurricular activities, and has begun to interfere with his or her functioning, you should get help for your child from a professional.

This article can also be found on the HuffPost.

Kathryn D. Boger, PhD, ABPP, is program director of McLean Anxiety Mastery Program and an instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.