When Tara was three years old she suffered terrible separation anxiety. Every day at nursery school drop off, she would wail and eventually have to be peeled off her dad's pant leg. He was riddled with guilt, but assured by the teachers that she did settle into class once he left.
At home, Tara refused to sleep alone, crying with fear and eventually snuggling into her parents' bed each night. After all, how could they leave her in fear? Surely, that is cruel.
Both Ted and Brandon suffered from some anxiety issues themselves so they had great compassion for her pleas of not being left alone in her room. And they knew that anxiety runs in families. There is a genetic component after all.
But maybe there is more at play in this fictional yet familiar scenario ...
WATCH: How to spot anxiety in a child. Story continues below video
Anxiety is a real issue; however, it is not uncommon for children to also learn that when they are displaying anxious emotions or behaviours that it elicits different reactions from their parents than when they are angry or sad.
If you are mad about being dropped off at swim lessons, your parents might sternly tell you that you had better get a more positive attitude and then drop you off regardless. But if you say you are scared and don't want to go to lessons, it's a whole different scenario. Instead of being forceful and curt, they crouch down and hug you. When you are anxious, they give you calm comfort. Maybe if you're anxious enough, they may even let you skip the lesson altogether.
Could it be that your child is getting a secondary gain or some benefit from feeling anxious? Do they get treated differently when they are anxious? Do parents put fewer demands on them? Do they acquiesce more? Could it become a successful method for a child to get their own way?
It's not that they're faking it
I am not suggesting this is outright manipulation. I am not even suggesting that children fake their emotions or that this is a conscious ploy. But from a psychological perspective, children learn experientially from their interactions in the world, and from those lessons, our subconscious takes over and applies the learning.
Children can work themselves into an anxious state if they have connected the dots between anxious emotion and getting their preferences met. This all happens out of conscious awareness, but it still is the mechanism behind some of the anxious moments with our children.
So what is a parent to do?
Pay attention to your emotions and their reactions
The first step in making any change is simple awareness. Just pay attention with this new knowledge and think about whether your child is perhaps gaining additional benefit from being anxious. You won't be in a position to do anything differently until you really feel this explains the behaviours you're dealing with.
Second, pay attention to your own emotions and trust them. If you are still feeling compassionate and really need to let that crying tot into your bed, by all means, do what you have to do. But if you are frustrated and feeling the stirrings of being controlled by your child's emotions, trust that too. You probably are!
Comfort, but take control
Third, you still have a job in helping a child move from an anxious state to a calm one. As I said, they are really anxious. Do your part to help emotionally regulate them, but do so with the aim of not letting them reach other goals.
Perhaps you walk them back to their bed and rub their back, but you don't let them be successful at sleeping with you. Maybe you take them to the pool and re-assure them that they will eventually feel settled enough to join the swim lesson, but you are not taking them home.
WATCH: How to handle a child with anxiety. Story continues below.
Bit by bit, step by step, that secondary gain or hidden benefit of being anxious will diminish and more calm states will take over instead. After all, who likes feeling anxious? No one!
Of course, the child's primary anxiety still needs to be addressed. I recommend the resources at the website Anxiety Canada as a great place for parents and children to learn more about this very real and debilitating issue. I know. Both my own children have learned skills for coping with their anxiety, and I have had to learn specific parenting methods to be both supportive and not re-enforcing. It can be a thin line — but you'll find it now that you are aware of it!
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