I LOVE finding research that backs up my program and how I work with parents and children. Most of the children in my practice are entering into a stage of development when separation anxiety presents itself. How we meet this in our children and respond to these natural feelings will teach the child a lot about themselves. And in doing so, we will meet this part of the self and confront our own anxiety monster.
I have held the idea that how we support our little ones during this time can build the confidence and resilience that they will need later to handle the bigger fears and anxieties of life. Of course we don’t want our children to feel fear, disappointment, rage, grief, anxiety and the myriad of the more troubling and tumultuous feelings of being human. But why not? Life is f’ing scary and anxiety provoking. That is just a fact. All of these darker shadow feelings are a part of this existence. We don’t have to provoke these feelings and we can sometimes protect them from excessive discourse but in the long run what I have found is that meeting these feelings with love, kindness and compassion is the only way through. Because after 20+ years of trying to get around them it became clear that to have full access to myself, be fully alive and present – this underbelly would keep turning up to show me just how vulnerable and scary it is to be human. James Taylor, an artist who struggled with depression and anxiety knew it when he sang – You can run but you cannot hide, This is widely known…
Instead of preventing these feelings, we can neutralize and normalize these natural responses of our humanness.
A Harvard study found a new way of treating childhood anxiety. Teach the parent to respond differently to the child’s anxiety. Instead of trying to change the child’s behavior, the parents were trained to let the child confront their anxieties while the parents provided love and support from afar.
“You coach the child a bit but don’t take over. It’s helping the child stumble into their own way of coping and ride whatever wave of anxiety they’re having,” – “That ultimately builds their confidence.”
This is the power of seeing the child as capable and competent.
“The parent’s own responses are a core and integral part of childhood anxiety,” says Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine who developed the training.
For instance, when Joseph would get scared about sleeping alone, Jessica and her husband, Chris Calise, did what he asked and comforted him. “In my mind, I was doing the right thing,” she says. “I would say, ‘I’m right outside the door’ or ‘Come sleep in my bed.’ I’d do whatever I could to make him feel not anxious or worried.”
But this comforting — something psychologists call accommodation — can actually be counterproductive for children with anxiety disorders, Lebowitz says.
“These accommodations lead to worse anxiety in their child, rather than less anxiety,” he says. That’s because the child is always relying on the parents, he explains, so kids never learn to deal with stressful situations on their own and never learn they have the ability to cope with these moments.
“When you provide a lot of accommodation, the unspoken message is, ‘You can’t do this, so I’m going to help you,’ ” he says.
What we are and are NOT doing.
We are not sending a common and outdated message of – “Be a big boy” or “Buck up!” – PLEASE NO! We also don’t want to try and convince a child – “You are OK.” We are saying – “Yes, your fear is welcome. Your anger is acknowledged and respected here. Your darker feelings are a part of your brilliance and beauty. ALL of you is seen, heard, understood and accepted.”
As I tell parents every day, when we offer our acknowledgement (I see you and hear you) and our empathy (I understand you. I feel you.), in these early stages of development our reassurance can have a strong, embodied, supportive message of confidence.
I believe you can do this. I trust that you can handle the struggles of your own development. I am here. I am listening.In doing so our love says – I believe in you and your strength.