The Science of Managing Children’s Anxieties
I consider myself a child anxiety expert. It’s my specialty trade in my private practice but I’ve also backed it up with published research studies. My research with Jennie Hudson has also shown that parents who are relaxed and unconcerned about small mistakes or risks tend to be more successful at helping their children navigate challenging tasks. I also showed recently that when you pair a happy adult face with a scary situation/object, children tend to feel less scared of that situation. So when I work with anxious children, I will also focus on helping parents manage their own anxiety, and the importance of conveying relaxed confidence when their child is about to approach a challenging task (e.g., NAPLAN, dance recital).
So this blog is about a recent parenting fail when executing my own clinical advice about relaxed parenting and vaccination fear.
The Actual Application of Managing Children’s Anxieties
We had our flu vaccinations recently. I modelled a casual relaxed approach as my 8-year-old daughter expressed her distress about the upcoming vaccination when we approached the GP’s clinic. I used my well-worn phrases (“I know that you can be brave”; “it will hurt but I also know that you can cope”) and my cognitive challenging phrases (“what do you think will happen?”; “what has happened in the past before when you were worried?”).
This did not calm her. So I tried an acceptance approach (“I can see that you’re worried and that’s okay. We can do this together”).
At the GP’s office, she started crying, and then went to hide behind the cupboard. My 3-year-old son was perfectly happy to do whatever it took for the jellybean and took the needle like a pro. This did not lure her out.
She began accusing the doctor of trying to trick her, started yelling when I approached her, and ran into the waiting room to hide under the chairs. This local GP is also a referral source for my private practice (hard to avoid in the suburbs) so I was mortified since I make a point of mentioning to all GPs that I specialise in childhood anxiety disorders.
Like all exasperated parents, I eventually lost my relaxed demeanour. My daughter and I got into an angry-whisper-coercive cycle (“if you don’t calm down, I will throw out all of your Shopkins!”; “You are a nasty and mean mummy and I hate you!! I hate the doctor!!”; “I’m calling your father!!!”). I felt deeply embarrassed as the receptionist giggled behind her desk and the GP looked on with amusement.
The Life Lesson: Parent, not Clinical Psychologist
The lesson I learnt was that even the best evidence-based practice is difficult to execute because I am a parent to my daughter, and not her clinical psychologist. I know that my child clients will execute certain elements of therapy that they will not for their parent because we have a professional relationship, and they cannot push my buttons. It also reminded me that life is not a clinical research trial in a vacuum.
We haven’t given up on the flu vaccination and parenting techniques for coping with anxiety. She has agreed to go back in a fortnight. I had forgotten the basic tenet of parenting: time spent with her so that she had time to process the challenging situation ahead, ask all the questions she needed answered, and feel more prepared for the vaccination.
She needed my love when she was calm so that she could tap that love for self-confidence when faced with a scary situation. It is a love that I am more than willing to give, having learnt my lesson on vaccination day.
For more tips on managing needle phobia: https://www.parentmap.com/article/shot-needle-phobia-parent-fuel
Some great tips from experts on managing your child’s anxiety: http://www.happychild.com.au/articles/how-parents-with-anxiety-can-help-their-children
Mitchell, J., Broeren, S., Newall, C., & Hudson, J.L. (2013). An experimental manipulation of maternal perfectionistic anxious rearing behaviours with anxious and non-anxious children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116, 1-18. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022096512002470?via%3Dihub
Newall, C., Watson, K., Grant, K-A., & Richardson, R. (2017). The relative effectiveness of extinction and counter-conditioning in diminishing children’s fear. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 95, 42-49. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796717300992?via%3Dihub