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COVID-19: Common Parenting Pitfalls While Raising Anxious Children

Updated: May 8, 2020

With increased time spent at home for children, there have likely been numerous instances of anxiety and frustration, as they deal with homeschooling and limited freedoms. There are many factors that can worsen anxiety for children including; disruption in daily routine, changes in school or with peers, and parental/familial stress to name a few. In many ways, the current pandemic is the perfect anxiety-producing storm. Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel. Although it can be heart wrenching to see your child in any kind of pain, teaching them that pain is an inevitable part of life is one of the most critical lessons a parent can impart. The following situations can all result in missed opportunities for your child’s growth:

Rescuing your child

Unfortunately, popular culture and our own parenting intuition tends to send the message that any discomfort is to be quickly and easily ameliorated. This type of thinking can lead to great distress when parents see their child in pain, despite the fact that enduring suffering is essential for growth. In fact, children need to be able to “sit-with”, accept, and push-through discomfort in order to gain the confidence, independence, and feelings of self-efficacy that are required for true success. For example, if your child puts off doing homework and fails to complete an assignment, it is best to let them deal with the consequences of their actions. Although it will feel counterintuitive to let your child “sink”, the repercussions may serve as an effective life lesson which would be lost if a well-meaning parent felt the need to intervene at the first signs of struggle (obviously if there are signs of underlying issues they will need to be addressed).

Inconsistent discipline

Consistent discipline is a mainstay in creating feelings of stability, especially for children who struggle with anxiety. Since children seek to view their parents as reliable, both inconsistent punishment and reinforcement are ineffective, and can be detrimental to a child’s feeling of control over their environment. Consequences of such inconsistency may be a loss of trust in the parent. Worse yet, some children will blame themselves instead, which will result in undue guilt and learned helplessness. It makes sense that both of these circumstances tend to exacerbate anxiety.

Giving your child too much freedom

Adopting an overly permissive parenting style can leave a child feeling overwhelmed and lost with too many options to choose from. It is better to give them a chance to practice making their own choices within a limited number of feasible options (“Would you like pasta or pizza” vs. “what should we have for dinner?”). Otherwise, giving a child too much freedom leads to a lack of boundaries that may result in a skewed power differential in the family. This dynamic may result in possible feelings of resentment and/or guilt leading to increased anxiety and strained family interactions. Presenting questions in a close-ended format decreases the possibility for argument, as children are likely to respond with suggestions that are more reflective of their whims rather than reasonable requests (“I am going to say goodnight now, do you want me to leave the door open or closed?” This example highlights the fact that saying goodnight is a given and the only choice is about the door).

Making all the decisions for your child

Conversely, micro-managing a child communicates that they lack the capacity to function individually. This type of over-involvement often leads to excessive dependence on authority figures, a lack of ability to become personally responsible and, ultimately, they become unable to fully form their own identity. Children with anxiety will often defer to a parent for decision making. One way to ease this anxiety is to give children time to step back and think about and process their options.

Thinking your child will grow out of it

Although anxiety waxes and wanes, if left untreated, it generally worsens over time. It is unrealistic to think that a child’s anxiety is simply going to abate. In the meantime, it will most likely have a detrimental effect on learning, social and other developmental skills as well as the child’s self-esteem.

Exposing your child to your own anxiety

While it is validating for children to see that they are not alone in their anxiety, exposing children to excessive fear-based behavior (consistently cringing at the sight of the dentist’s office) frequently teaches them to perceive an inaccurate view of reality. Further, this type of interaction models faulty coping skills (avoidance) and removes a much-needed sense of security for a child who is already dealing with high levels of anxiety. There can be the misconception that seeking your own therapy takes the focus away from your children, when in actuality, it is healthy modeling and beneficial for the family system as a whole.

Believing that treating your child’s anxiety is the source and solution of all family problems

No one individual exists within a vacuum. More often than not, anxiety in a child will affect other family members and negatively impact the family system as each part of a system affects the whole. When a systemic problem occurs it cannot be fixed by solely treating the child without addressing related issues within the family. Although it may be simpler to perceive the problem as the child’s or to blame the disease, this way of thinking will only serve to prolong and exacerbate the anxiety. Therefore, scapegoating will not only serve to worsen the situation by wasting precious time and energy, it will likely intensify the negative circumstances by creating feelings of frustration, resentment, guilt, and shame among family members.

Blaming your own parenting skills as contributing to your child’s anxiety

Even the best parenting techniques can fall short. Many parents may blame themselves rather than take into account and address components of the disease that are based on other environmental factors (a poorly organized classroom) or biological underpinnings (chemical imbalances). Also, consider that all children are born with the ability to manipulate their environment, which is an adaptive means for learning and survival. Thus, if you have been consistently modeling healthy behavior and providing appropriate structure for your child, then it may be more beneficial to focus your energy on other factors that may be contributing to your child’s anxiety. Focusing on one’s own shortcomings will only delay symptom improvements.

Looking for a “magic cure or quick-fix”

It doesn’t exist!

Resisting a diagnosis for fear of a label

Even today, there still exists a stigma associated with mental illness. This attitude may delay proper diagnosis and treatment, and consequently, allows anxiety to grow and worsen. Furthermore, the lack of a proper diagnosis prevents the much needed relief from understanding that anxiety disorders can be effectively treated and are neither the parent’s nor the child’s fault. However, if left untreated, anxiety disorders often become quite serious affecting both mind and body.

There is hope! Anxiety disorders are treatable with evidence-based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), especially when caught in the early stages. Gaining a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, such as CBT, serves to destigmatize the condition and teaches children and families that anxiety disorders are common and they are not alone.

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