Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My kids’ fears are keeping them from doing things they need to do. And I’m so tired of fighting it I’m giving in. What can I do?

Kids need help to manage anxiety without avoidance

Amanda G. Mintzer, PsyD
Amanda Mintzer, PsyD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I'm a mom going bananas. My 6-year-old boy recently got over severe panic attacks about going to school, focused on fears he had of his Spanish teacher. He has gotten over that anxiety with help from the school psychologist, but now he doesn't want to ride the bus, which he used to love, because no one talks to him, he says. I have to take him to school every day. And he doesn't want to go to soccer practice (loved as well) because 4 weeks ago he made a mistake, and now he is afraid his teammates will laugh. My 4-year-old girl, who has been very outgoing and loved her nursery school, now hates it, and doesn't want to go back, because one of the nannies there makes up a story about a big insect and how it's going to eat them if they don't eat their snacks. It's a small nursery and they mix kids of different ages, each one with workload appropriate to their age. But even so, she says that she isn't going back because of the giant insect and because she is around babies too much. My husband and I have been very supportive, understanding and nurturing, but it the last word usually comes from me. I feel so alone in this mess, that I once had soooo organized. And by now I'm just giving in, because I'm tired of "enforcing the law" every single second. I need a fresh look into this.

It sounds like your 6-year-old son is having problems with anxiety. When kids are not able to do the things they used to like doing, or are avoiding certain people, places or activities because their anxiety is too distressing, it is important to get a comprehensive professional evaluation. An evaluation will help you learn more about what is bothering him, and what kind of help he could benefit from. In the meantime, you may also want to talk to the school psychologist about his fears because it sounds like your son has a good relationship with that person already.

When we see kids experiencing worry and anxiety it is in our nature as parents and caregivers to try to comfort them. It is also in our nature to want our children to make it through the day without experiencing distress—so we help them avoid the things that scare them. Driving your son to school probably makes everyone’s morning run a bit more smoothly; however, this type of accommodation serves to reinforce his anxiety, because it does not help him learn how to face his fears or tolerate uncomfortable situations. For kids who struggle with anxiety, we use an evidenced-based form of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention to teach kids how to be brave and gradually face their fears. I do not recommend that parents try to do this type of treatment on their own, because you might go too fast too soon, and it is important to understand what is driving or maintaining the fear, which a therapist can help determine.

For your daughter, it seems that there may be some modeling at play here. Your daughter is seeing her older brother avoid school, and now she is, too. Leaving the school because she is afraid of the story about the giant insect is not a good idea because it is reinforcing avoidance, which is not a lesson that you want her to learn. At the same time, it is important that her school feels like a supportive environment — one that challenges her academically and also supports her emotional needs. Looking for a school that might be a better fit for your daughter at this time is a good approach to take — as long as avoidance is not the main motivation.

Finally, from your letter it is clear that you going through a difficult time right now and feeling like you are alone navigating these complicated issues. It is important during stressful times to make sure that you are taking care of yourself, too. By taking care of yourself you’ll actually be in a better position to help your children. So try to put some time aside for you. You might want to reach out to your husband or family or friends or a therapist — whatever it takes to help you feel supported. With the right support and mindset for yourself and your children you will hopefully find tackling these challenges a bit easier.