When Caring Backfires on Parents: The Reassurance Trap
Over the years, Laura and I have worked with many kids who struggle with anxiety and/or obsessive compulsive disorder. The parents of kids with anxiety tend to be loving and concerned. These parents want to do anything they can to reduce the suffering of their kids. They ask us how they can help and what they can do. An important first step is to stop doing what seems to be a natural response to a child’s fears. Most parents resist this advice at first and have difficulty following it when they try.
So what is this advice? We tell them to go against the grain of their well intentioned parenting instincts and stop reassuring their children. We know that this recommendation sounds like utter heresy to many parents, and perhaps it does to you too. After all, kids with anxiety and/or OCD feel insecure much of the time and they feel better (at least for a little while) when parents give them reassurance. But that’s the rub. When kids feel insecure and parents provide reassurance, they inadvertently reinforce the feeling of insecurity. They also end up giving an indirect message to their kids, to wit: “You need to rely on your parents to deal with distress and you can’t handle things yourself.”
Now we don’t recommend that you stop reassuring your kids all at once with no warning–doing so would result in more distress than necessary. Rather, we suggest that you discuss this issue with your anxious child ahead of time. Review some of the reassuring seeking statements that your child typically comes to you with such as:
- Is the house really locked up?
- Is this food clean?
- Are you mad at me?
- Do you love my brother more than me?
- Is Daddy going to lose his job?
Questions like these pull parents to provide reassurance. And please realize that if your child doesn’t ask them often or doesn’t suffer from serious anxiety, giving a little reassurance from time to time is no big deal at all. But, if the questions escalate in frequency and intensity, and if your child has a problem with anxiety or OCD, you need to have a talk. Tell your kids that you will answers these questions differently in the future. You certainly want to tell your child that her feelings are normal, but that she needs to learn how to handle what she’s feeling on her own. Therefore tell your children, in the future, your responses will sound like these:
- We agreed that I can’t answer that.
- That sounds like your OCD talking, what do you want to say back to it?
- You know the answer to that question.
- I know you’re feeling anxious, but you’ll have to figure this one out.
We know that these responses may sound a little cold or lacking in empathy. But conveyed with the right tone and understanding of the child’s feelings can allow for a little warmth and concern. It’s just that reassuring kids over and over again only makes things worse. You also may discover that enlisting a little professional help with this idea helps get you get over the hump. We’ll have more to say about this topic in future blogs. By the way, sometimes this advice is useful for certain adult relationships as well–and again, only with discussion and agreement before making the change.
Elliott, C. (2009). When Caring Backfires on Parents: The Reassurance Trap. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/anxiety/2009/04/when-caring-backfires-on-parents-the-reassurance-trap/