Only If It Helps: Finding Solutions to Your Child’s Stress
Parents often make these two well-intended mistakes when trying to help their child during stressful times
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I have a longstanding rule with my now almost-12-year-old daughter: I will do whatever you ask when you’re feeling really scared/worried/anxious/freaked out about something — but only if it actually helps.
Wanting to help our child during significant stress is a natural parental instinct. We will do anything to ease those terrible feelings. But often we, as parents, make two well-intended mistakes: We keep doing things that don’t actually help and we consequently don’t allow them to discover what does help them in those moments.
Our ultimate goal as parents is to prepare our kids for life. Managing stress is a big part of that. We have to know what coping equation of helping ourselves and soliciting help from others delivers that relief. Of course, we never completely manage our stress away — it’s a lifelong skill we are always building. But there’s a distinct difference between managing stress versus being completely controlled by it.
The discovery has to start early. We as parents have to help our kids explore and experiment with what actually helps them in time of acutes stress — it not only helps us deescalate the situation but, more importantly, it also helps them learn about themselves, gain self-confidence that they can manage the stress and realize that they hold the keys to their own prison.
My daughter used to have significant anxiety about going to the dentist, almost from the beginning. I tried the usual strategies of explaining that it’s important, we all have to go, she will get a prize at the end, and then the Hail Mary: Sometimes life is just hard, so accept it. None of it was getting me very far with her.
So I asked her, “What do you think would help with how you are feeling?” She replied that she would like more forewarning than the day before — that she needed at least three days notice. So that’s what I did the next time; however, then we endured three days of high anxiety before the appointment instead of the usual 24 hours.
I had to change my approach to “we only do things if they help.” I had to admit that I went along with the three-day rule because she thought it would help — and she had to admit that earlier notice was definitely not helping her fears about the dentist.
I told her we could explore and experiment with other ideas, because she still had to go to the dentist. The key to making it easier was somewhere inside of her and, together, we would figure it out. She could suggest things. I could suggest things that used to help me as kid. It broke the cycle of her current anxiety loop, offered her a distraction, and allowed her to take some power back, which as it turns out, is one of her keys for reducing anxiety about the dentist. The more the dentist or I could tell her what was going to happen at the appointment (and what was not), how long each step should take, and whether each step would hurt, feel “weird”, or be pain-free, the better off she was.
It was a lot of trial and error, but we found what worked best and we continued to tweak that over time as she got older, for the dentist and other areas as well. But by holding fast to the “only if it helps” rule, she learned to really try a solution or else it would be discontinued in search of something else. I learned that she can be my partner in helping her in those situations instead of me blindly guessing or continuing ineffective solutions. But perhaps most importantly, she started her lifelong journey of understanding herself, asking for the right help when needed, and ultimately helping herself when life gets hard.
Dr. Katherine Loflin is a divorced mom with a global consultancy. She is a North Carolina native living in Cary with her daughter. Learn more about her at city-doctor.com.