…”The parent’s own responses are a core and integral part of childhood anxiety,” says Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine who developed the training.
…But this comforting [e.g., allowing your child to sleep with you in your bed at night because he is afraid to sleep alone] — something psychologists call accommodation — can actually be counterproductive for children with anxiety disorders, Lebowitz says.
“These accommodations lead to worse anxiety in their child, rather than less anxiety,” he says. That’s because the child is always relying on the parents, he explains, so kids never learn to deal with stressful situations on their own and never learn they have the ability to cope with these moments.
“When you provide a lot of accommodation, the unspoken message is, ‘You can’t do this, so I’m going to help you,’ ” he says.
Lebowitz wondered if it would help to train parents to change that message and to encourage their children to face anxieties rather than flee from them.
Currently the established treatment for childhood anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy delivered directly to the child.
….Once a week, she [Jessica, the parent to the anxious son] drove from Norwalk, Conn., to Yale University for an hourlong session with a therapist.
Like all the parents who went through Lebowitz’s training program, Jessica began forming a plan with the therapist on how she and her husband would stop swooping in when Joseph became anxious.
The key to doing that, Lebowitz says, is to make children feel heard and loved, while using supportive statements to build their confidence. Parents need to “show their child that they understand how terrible it is to feel anxious,” he says. They need to accept that their child is “genuinely anxious and not just being attention seeking,” he adds.
The next step is to tell children that “they can tolerate that anxiety and they don’t need to be rescued from it.” This helps give them the strength to face their fears, Lebowitz says.
This approach was hard at first, says Joseph’s father, Chris Calise. He’s a construction equipment operator, roughly 6 feet tall, with a frame as solid as brick.
“The hardest hump for me was the way I was brought up,” he says, rapping his fingers against the kitchen table. “I always thought the way you do things [is to say], ‘Get over it. You’re fine. Suck it up.’ But it was obvious what we were doing wasn’t working.”
So, the parents committed themselves to a plan to get Joseph to feel comfortable sleeping and showering alone.
“It was baby steps first. I’d say, ‘I’m not going to stay [outside the bathroom], but I’ll come back and check on you in five minutes,’ ” Jessica says. “Then I would say, ‘I know it’s scary for you, but I know that you can do it. You’re going to do great.’ Just acknowledging the anxiety and providing the reinforcing statement.”
….The parent training seems to work because it lets children confront their anxieties while parents provide love and support from afar, says Anne Marie Albano, a psychologist at Columbia University who did not work on the study.