How to Help Our Children Face Rather Than Fight Their Anxiety

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Imagine that your child comes to you in tears because she is too anxious to take the test that she has been studying weeks for. She tells you that she is unsure if she has studied everything that needs to be studied and wants you to ask the teacher for an extension. What do you do? Do you contact the teacher or do you help your child face that anxiety and uncertainty?

This fall, The New York Times wrote a brilliant article about anxiety in adolescents and the balance between pushing kids to face their fears and protecting them. 

As parents, we want to keep our children safe and will do anything to alleviate their anxiety. But, what if trying to decrease that anxiety is actually making them more anxious in the long run? By constantly preventing our children from feeling anxious, we are teaching them that anxiety is scary and bad. We are teaching our children that they can't handle anxiety and that any acceptable level of risk or uncertainty is to be avoided.

So, what would it be like if we changed that message? What if we taught our children that anxiety is an emotion that isn't all that bad and that we have to learn how to live with it? What if we taught our kids to lean into their anxiety? 

Exposure therapy does just that. 

As an exposure therapist, my job is to work with individuals of all ages to help them gradually, compassionately, and directly confront their fears. Uncomfortable? Yes! Effective? Absolutely! Research supports that one of the most effective ways to decrease anxiety (be it, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, or school anxiety) is through exposure therapy.  By facing what is most scary, uncertain, and anxiety provoking, we learn the following:

  1. Our feared situations, outcomes, or triggers are not as dangerous and scary as we initially thought
  2. Our anxious feelings and body sensations are not as bad as we make them out to be and, typically, when we stay in an anxiety provoking situation long enough, our anxious feelings will subside. 
  3. We are capable of tolerating the anxiety, risk, and uncertainty that we have avoided for so long
  4. Our feared outcomes usually don't occur; and if they do, we can manage it better than we thought.

So, let's revisit the message we are sending our children. Anxiety is a universal emotion. Instead of teaching our kids to avoid it, let's help them learn how to embrace it.

Jennifer Welbel