Because I am trained in a specific type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), I see a lot of children and adolescents with anxiety disorders. Research demonstrates that CBT is the most effective non-pharmacologic treatment for anxiety. And because anxiety is a highly heritable trait, many of the anxious youngsters that I see have at least one anxious parent. Here’s a quote from one such child client:
If the world is such a scary place, why do people even have kids? (AJ, age 10)
AJ’s parents had brought him to therapy because he was experiencing a lot of trouble falling asleep at night. Historically a good sleeper, AJ had become fearful of the dark, of “bad men” breaking into the house at night, and of being kidnapped. He had developed an elaborate bedtime ritual requiring one of his parents to check under his bed and in his closet, to lock and relock the windows of his bedroom, and to make sure the house alarm was activated.
Although very well-meaning, Mom and Dad were making a couple of big parenting mistakes, mistakes that would probably have little effect on a less-anxious child. First, in their effort to keep AJ safe, they talked to him frequently about the dangers of the world – strangers, doors carelessly left ajar, wearing jerseys bearing one’s last name, taking showers when thunderstorms are in the forecast. As all children do, AJ had begun to internalize his parents’ world view. Because he was developmentally unprepared to challenge his parents’ beliefs, he started to see danger everywhere.
Mom and Dad’s second mistake was in their response to AJ’s bedtime anxiety. By participating in the checking rituals, they were inadvertently reinforcing his fears. Checking the room was sending the message that danger may be lurking there. In the long run, it would be much more reassuring to AJ if his parents refused to check under the bed and in the closet on the grounds that there is no reason to do so – if they said, for example, “We don’t need to look in the closet to know there is nothing dangerous in there. We are all safe here in our home.”
Raising children with anxious temperaments presents unique challenges. It is especially difficult for parents who suffer from anxiety themselves. AJ’s comment illustrates very well the power parental warnings have to frighten children. Of course, it is important to teach children about real dangers in the world. At the same time, parents need to teach, through conversation and modeling, specific, age-appropriate strategies for staying safe. In addition, they need to communicate confidence that their children have the personal resources to deal with these dangers. The take-away message for kids needs to “Sure, there are dangers in the world, but we know that you have the good sense, knowledge, and skills to keep yourself safe.”
When AJ’s parents learned to manage their own fears and to present the world as a mostly safe place with only some isolated elements of danger, AJ became a much more relaxed little boy. In his last session with me, he gave me another great quote for my journal:
Can you believe when I was little I used to make my parents check for bad guys under my bed? And they did it? That was silly! (AJ, age 10 1/2)