Why You Must Stop Enabling a Child and How to Empower Them Instead
This is the number one must-read topic for any parent of an anxious child. If I could go back 8 years and read this article, I truly believe things would have turned out differently. I had no idea that I was enabling my anxious daughter many times throughout the day. I thought I was protecting her, when in fact, I was amplifying and reinforcing the anxiety. What I needed was knowledge of how to empower a child with anxiety.
As parents, we will do whatever necessary to make our kids feel safe, secure, and as happy as possible. We never want to see our kids in pain or distress. Add a disability to the mix of everyday parental worries, and we have entered a whole new dimension! For me, I knew my daughter was battling the beast of anxiety every day, so I felt I should remove as many uncomfortable and unhappy situations from her path as I could so she was better able to enjoy life in spite of anxiety.
Through extensive treatments and research, I am now fully aware of the errors I made in parenting an anxious child. While I do not regret my mistakes, knowing I did not have the knowledge or understanding to do better, I would love a re-do! Parents have a responsibility to do what is best for their children. We must learn how and why to stop enabling a child with anxiety and how to empower a child instead.
ENABLE VERSUS EMPOWER
By enabling children, we are giving power to the anxiety that it is a beast to be feared, controlling our lives. Any parenting decision or behavior that makes it easier for our child to continue down the path of fear and avoidance is enabling. This style of parenting often soothes our children, and often our own anxiety, at the moment but limits their growth and capabilities long term. Empowerment, on the other hand, teaches our anxious children that we see and hear their fear and that we are here to work through this together. It teaches resilience, coping strategies, and ultimately confident independence.
As a teacher, I learned and witnessed, that ALL children, no matter their abilities physically, mentally, or emotionally, will try to get what they want and avoid situations or tasks that they dislike. The same goes for children with anxiety. Parents of all children are aware of this and must make decisions on raising children to be confident, independent adults. I thought I needed to give in and make my anxious daughter happy when I really needed to work even harder to give her the skills she needed in life. I needed to empower a child rather than enable her.
REALITY VERSUS PARENTING BOOKS
Here is my big “aha moment” that I feel is lacking in all parenting books and books about anxiety. Those books are often, not always, written by incredibly gifted, knowledgeable experts who offer an incredible amount of education, guidance, and support, but ultimately fail to convey that parenting an anxious child is never black and white…there is always a gray area. For me, I felt like the ideas I was presented were always failing me because I tried to follow their guidelines. Those guidelines, I realized needed to be viewed as starting points. In the real world of child anxiety, daily life is a game of “pick your battles”. What triggers anxiety today may not be an issue the next day. Or a child’s lack of sleep may make the entire day feel like you have to walk on eggshells. Parents of anxious children must always be observing, using their best judgment, and work through trial and error in order to find the most successful ways in which to empower anxious children.
I feel very confident in the concept of empowering and enabling, as I can identify what should be done in each situation, and I do my best to empower my children at all times. However, real life happens and there are many times where I weigh my options and enabling happens because I have to get to work on time or I have to leave my child in the care of someone else. In these moments, I remind myself and my daughter that while this may not be helping you, we pick our battles and look at the big picture. I often refer back to this moment later to reflect on what we could have done better. My ultimate goal is to make sure that the majority of my time I make decisions that empower my children, rather than enable them. I do not beat myself up for the moments of enabling because life must go on.
I have to ask myself, can I handle another meltdown right now? If I have the time to stick it out, I must make the empowering parental decision, even knowing my child will give push back. I have learned to plan extra time before leaving the house specifically for moments like this. In the beginning, it seemed useless to fight these battles, but I reminded myself that the goal was long-term success, not immediate results. I can say with certainty, that it does work but it is hard work and requires incredible patience. Having this knowledge and mindset from the beginning would have been a game changer for our family.
EXAMPLES OF ENABLING AN ANXIOUS CHILD
I am guilty of every example of enabling listed below. At the time, I thought I was doing what was best for my daughter.
Shielding or protecting your child from situations that may cause anxiety
Your child is afraid to attend a birthday party, go out to dinner, visit the neighbors, etc. so you allow them to stay home at all times. It feels right to allow them to stay in the safety of their home rather than face the anxiety of being out and about.
Stepping in to complete a difficult task for them
Your child has a slideshow presentation due for school and is worried it will not be perfect so you complete the work for them, ensuring it is done without mistake. You believe that completing the project for them removes some stress from their already anxiety-filled school day.
Not allowing a child to take risks
Your child wants to try out for the sports team but you do not let them because you worry they may not make the team and they will be disappointed. Your child does not handle disappoint or failure well, so you remove the possibility that they will not succeed in order to avoid the possibility of their disappointment.
Giving in to complaints or demands
Your child complains that she or he wants more time on technology even though their time is up. You let them stay on longer to make them happy and avoid an argument or sadness on their part.
Not allowing a child to experience discomfort
Your child is worried about singing on stage with the music class at school so you let him or her stay home from school. You know they feel anxiety in these situations so allowing your child to skip the performance shields them from the anxiety.
Cover up your child's errors
Your child took another kids book home from school- you allow them to keep the book rather than return it with an apology. You worry that your child will be embarrassed by his decision to take a book so you do not enforce an apology.
Protect from natural consequences
Your child did not remember to complete his or her homework and she is anxious that the teacher will be mad. You email the teacher and take the blame for the incomplete homework.
EXAMPLES OF EMPOWERING A CHILD WITH ANXIETY
I have also done all of these with success- they do take a bit more planning and you have to change your thought process so this becomes the norm- and be prepared for resistance and meltdowns in the beginning.
Offering opportunities for gradual exposure to situations that may lead to anxiety
Your child is worried about going places. Create a plan where you will stay away from crowds and re-evaluate the situation after 10 minutes.
Working together with your child to complete a difficult task
Sit down together and come up with a plan, each taking roles to get the task done successfully. The plan should include baby steps, lots of support, and plenty of time.
Creating experiences that offers small risks to your child
For children who worry about being alone, create opportunities for your child to go to the basement alone for 5 minutes or to ride their scooter outside while you watch from the window.
Standing firm when your child complains or demands
Remind your child that you have expectations for a reason and that you will not change your mind…then DO NOT give in!
Compromising when a child may be uncomfortable
If your child is really struggling with singing with the choir, work out a plan where he or she sings one song, then assesses how he or she feels, making the decision to stay or leave. This way they experienced an uncomfortable situation but it was not too overwhelming.
Helping your child work through and accept their errors
Creating a plan where the child returns the book with a personal apology.
Allowing your child to experience natural consequences
The homework was not complete so he or she needs to ask the teacher how to handle the situation…lower grade, missed recess, etc.
As shown, enabling leads to avoidance of anxiety, which is not helpful for anyone. Empowering a child leads to anxiety management, resilience, flexibility, all tools needed in order to live a happy, successful life. Parents should always acknowledge their child’s thoughts and anxieties, making realistic, positive promises to help them navigate all situations. Parenting is hard. Parenting an anxious child is harder. Be kind to yourself, knowing you will make mistakes, but know you have the tools and knowledge to better empower your child.