Helping or Enabling Your Child's Anxiety

After seeing his friend throw up at school, Baruch was crippled with the fear he would vomit. To “protect” himself, he pleaded with his parents to let him stay home. Each day, Rivka (his mother) managed to get him out the door by reassuring him that she was certain he would not throw up and that if he got nervous, he could call home. As a result, Baruch called home a few times per day, concerned. Rivka reassured him each time. Eventually, Baruch started to fear that he would throw up at a friend’s house. Rivka helped by arranging for his friends to come over to their house instead. In addition, Baruch expressed fear in going to summer camp. Rivka allows him to stay home and planned activities for him. Baruch felt relieved, stayed home during the summer and had a wonderful time with his mother. Throughout the summer – he never threw up. Yet, the fear consumed him. Emetophobia (fear of vomiting) is not an uncommon phobia. Rivka is a well-meaning and caring parent, who tried her best to help her child cope with this anxiety. Unfortunately, her strategies helped Baruch feel relief in the moment, but may have hurt him long term.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the feeling of uneasiness or apprehension relating to uncertainty. Anxiety has many forms. One can be anxious about past events (“Did I turn off the stove?”), the present (“What are people over there thinking about me?”) or the future (“Will eating this food give me cancer?”). Anxious feelings can be beneficial. For example, fear of getting a poor grade can be a strong motivator to study. However, anxiety can also become a disorder and disrupt daily life. A person can have generalized anxiety, or an anxiety relating to something specific – known as a phobia. Baruch’s fear is an example of a phobia.
Avoidance Doesn’t Help
Because those with anxiety disorders have trouble differentiating between an actual risk and the fear of the risk, therapy usually involves some form of exposure. A skilled mental health professional can walk you or your child through this process. In the example above, Rivka was trying to support her son. But instead of helping him, she likely exacerbated his feelings of anxiety. Baruch was able to avoid situations which scared him – and in the process, his anxiety grew. Avoidance aggravates the anxiety and exposure is the key to decreasing it.
Age-Appropriate Anxiety
It is important to note that not all anxiety is a disorder. Children experience fear related to noises, strangers, separation, darkness, thunder and more. However, when these fears become atypical – especially as it compares to peers, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional. These clinicians not only help the individual suffering but can also coach the family on how best to support their struggling loved on.