When it comes to parenting, we’re all in the same boat. Even as a child psychologist with multiple degrees in child psychology and 15+ years of clinical experience under my belt, I find myself getting caught off-guard as a parent with how to best support my kiddos through their fears and anxieties, especially when parenting can feel like it’s so full of contradictions (Am I being nurturing enough? Am I setting enough boundaries? Am I fostering enough responsibility? Am I letting them have enough fun?)
And when it comes to anxious feelings- how do we find a balance between supporting our kids and helping them build confidence in their own coping? It can seem like an impossible task. Furthermore, as a parent, our own heartstrings get pulled when our kids are in distress (as nature intended!) And so when we respond to our kids’ anxious feelings, we are not only responding to their distress, but we are also responding to our OWN emotional distress. It is extremely difficult to sit with our children’s distress and not fix it for them. I am no exception.
Effective ways to address your child’s fears
My kids recently were on the bus riding home from school on a snowy day, and the bus got stuck on ice. The kids had to sit on the bus patiently for an hour (some had to wait for 2 hours!) before they were able to switch to a new bus and get home. When they came home, my kids burst into tears and had a LOT of fear about ever riding the bus again. As a parent, my “momma bear” feelings got activated, and I had the impulse to comfort them by telling them they didn’t have to ride the bus again… then I paused… How will that help them in the long run? Were they in any danger? Am I helping teach them that they can handle life’s unexpected complications?
So instead of telling them what I wanted to (which is they don’t have to ride the bus again) I hugged them, validated how difficult it would have been to be on that bus and to be scared, I praised them for being able to get through the tough situation, I reassured them that they were not in any danger despite feeling anxious and that the bus is safe to ride, I set an expectation that they will ride the bus again (or rather, I set a boundary that I would not be driving them to school daily), and I communicated confidence to them in their ability to cope with any bus situation that may arise in the future.
The next morning, we walked to the bus (not without some slight opposition along the way) and the kids got on with happy faces and had a great day.
Use SPACE strategies to respond to your child’s anxious feelings
SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) strategies help bridge these contradictions for parents. SPACE is a framework that helps parents maintain and utilize their compassion, nurturance and love for their kiddos, while ALSO helping kiddos to face difficult circumstances and to build their own confidence in their ability to cope with adversity and unexpected challenges. Though SPACE was designed to treat children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, as a parent, I find that the SPACE strategies are very helpful for guiding me in how to respond to my children’s anxious FEELINGS. Anxiety is a snowball disorder- the more we accommodate and avoid, the bigger it grows. Having these tools as a parent to help our children through anxious feelings can strengthen our children’s confidence and emotional coping, and it can also potentially prevent the escalation of anxious feelings into an anxiety disorder.
Whether you’re a parent who would like to have better tools for responding to your child’s anxious feelings, or you’re a parent of a child who struggles with clinical anxiety, the evidence-based strategies in SPACE can provide the framework to help you compassionately support your child.
Learn more about SPACE groups for parents at The Ross Center.