Most children worry, and most parents want to know how to respond. Last month, we dipped our toes into one of the most important anxiety lessons for anyone to learn: when it comes to worry and anxiety, what you’re worrying about (called the content) is largely irrelevant. It’s about helping our children through the process of working through their worries.
This process is the same regardless of the content, because at its core, anxiety boils down one thing — feeling uncomfortable about uncertainty. For instance, one week a child is scared going to the bathroom. The next, they’re going to the bathroom just fine but are afraid of falling asleep by themselves or going to events without parents. The only limits of their worry are the bounds of their imagination. I’m never surprised to hear about “anxiety whack-a-mole” when I talk to a new parent. Often, a child’s anxiety gets better in one area but then pops up someplace else.
This month, I’d like to dive a little deeper into the most common way parents respond to their child’s worry — with reassurance. Even I do it. Let’s revisit my middle schooler’s situation. She often gets embroiled in group chats and tends to launch herself into a worry spiral (more like a tsunami) about what so-and-so was thinking, what they “really meant when they said that,” the “signs” that so-and-so “hates” her … I could go on. When she comes to me, she’s looking for reassurance that none of her worries are, in fact, true (as if I know).
She’s looking for a guarantee (certainty) where none exists! Her worry is like a bully, and everyone’s worry bully wants certainty and comfort. One of the best skills we, as parents, can teach our kids is learn to be comfortable with not knowing. I often joke with my kids that I want them to tattoo “it’s OK not to know” on their arms, so they don’t ever forget this.
For me to give her false reassurance by telling her, “I’m sure everyone likes you” or, “I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think,” would actually be feeding her anxiety, because it’s giving her a temporary dose of relief from her discomfort. It doesn’t teach her how to work through anything, because no matter what I say, nothing is going to stick, and nothing is going to satisfy her. There’s no way to know FOR SURE the answers to her worries. I’d just join the spiral. (Have you ever noticed that your worries can always find the loophole? “Yes, but…”?)
According to the Oxford dictionary, reassurance is “the action of removing someone’s doubts or fears.” While that seems pretty straightforward, there’s actually more to it. There are two types of reassurance.
Productive reassurance is when you get whatever information you needed to resolve the problem, and the issue is done. That kind of reassurance is helpful, because it relieves your anxiety and allows you to put the issue to rest.
My son is a new driver, and I was worried about him driving to school in the snow. Specifically, I was worried that the tires on his car were too worn out. During the first snow, my head filled with images of him getting in an accident or sliding into a ditch. This is unproductive worry. I took the tires into my mechanic for reassurance about their safety. He gave his recommendation, I followed it, and the issue was over. Sure, I still have to live with uncertainty and discomfort when my son drives, especially in bad weather, but my concerns about the tires are gone.
Unproductive reassurance is just that. It’s the opposite of productive, because it does NOT lead to any decision-making or anxiety relief (in fact, it creates more), and it does not resolve the issue. Have you ever started to scratch a mosquito bite, intending to scratch it just a little bit, but, before you know it, you’re clawing at your skin like your life depended on it? Yeah, that’s a metaphor for unproductive reassurance.
Let’s look at some examples of reassuring our kids when…
We can’t predict the outcome:
- “Of course, mommy and daddy won’t die in a car crash.”
- “You’re going to do great on your test!”
- “No, your friends aren’t mad at you.”
We’re asked to read the minds of others:
- “I’m sure so-and-so likes you.”
- “I’m sure she didn’t mean to hurt your feelings”
- “He didn’t mean it that way.”
We’re asked to make any promises about the future:
- “You’ll be successful, I know it.”
- “You’ll have fun for sure.”
- “You’ll be fine once you get there.”
- “Of course, we’ll make it there safely!”
We’re asked to check (or notice our child is checking) their work over and over to make sure it’s “perfect”:
- The homework that takes hours and hours to complete to make sure it’s perfect.
- The email that has to be rewritten and rechecked multiple times to make sure there are no mistakes.
- Taking the SAT/ACT every month to try and get a perfect (or near-perfect) score, because it feels uncomfortable having a sub-perfect score.
Basically, any time we are asked to provide certainty in an uncertain world, it’s unproductive.
So, what’s a parent to do? Click here for my 5 Steps to Respond to Your Child’s Worries.
Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist in Shaker Heights. Connect with her on Instagram and Facebook. Or learn more about how she can help you and your family at joannahardis.com.