There are some myths floating around about how anxiety works and how it should be treated. Like rumors, they harm the teller as much as the listener, they mutate and diffuse like pathogens, they whisper among the noises of everyday life, and yet their impact is unmistakable. As myths often do, they contain elements of the truth.
Let’s start with the truth.
- Children are born helpless, and in the absence of adult care they will fail to thrive physically and emotionally.
- Healthy emotional development starts with a secure base. In other words, parents create a safe space from which children venture into the unknown.
- Emotional pain is real pain.
And now the myths:
- Children are fragile.
- Healthy development and good mental health require absolute safety.
- Emotional pain is trauma.
- The above three statements are supported by the field of mental health.\
What’s so terrible about these ideas? Aren’t they at least a little true? Aren’t children fragile? Don’t they get hurt easily; don’t their feelings matter? Isn’t it true that safety is essential for our mental health? And isn’t at least some emotional pain traumatic? Sometimes truth is just a binding agent for misinformation. When it comes to childhood emotions, and especially anxiety, operating on partial truth often causes us to do the opposite of what’s best.
Most people know that anxiety is a close cousin to fear, which we evolved as a mechanism to keep us safe. It is not surprising that our overwhelming response to anxiety is to treat it like fear: remove the stimulus as quickly as possible. Instead of coping strategies, we use escape strategies like avoidance, distraction, reassurance, and hand-holding. Many entering therapy might say, “I want to get rid of the anxiety so I can live my life,” but skilled therapists teach them to live their lives despite having anxiety. Only when the activities of living are accomplished in the presence of anxiety can the desire for relief be truly realized.
This is where we often go wrong with children; we teach them relief first. We accommodate their anxious requests by offering safety and padding the walls of their comfort zones. These responses come in many forms, which are harmless in sporadic isolation, but deleterious when done out of habit. What follows are common examples of how parents inadvertently accommodate and reinforce their children's anxiety out of a desire to protect their feelings:
- Lying in kids’ beds until they fall asleep
- Intervening with playground squabbles before kids can resolve them
- Over-scheduling and/or elimination of unstructured time
- Having kids call home from school as a coping device
- Allowing screen time to be defined as coping devices
- Providing frequent agendas or descriptions of what to expect
- Automatically giving reassurance when kids express their worries
- Writing off anxiety as simply a family trait
- Foregoing the schoolbus when it is the sensible mode of transportation
- Allowing behaviors like yelling, tantrums, and swearing a because they are “part of the anxiety”
Children are antifragile; they grow and develop through exposure to conflict, disorder, stress, and randomness. The term “antifragile” was coined by the risk analyst and author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He posited that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, which is simply the capacity to withstand great stress, but antifragility, the tendency to grow from it. If you are familiar with Taleb’s work, then let me be the first to admit that his public persona is rather antagonistic, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, the concept of antifragility has been repeatedly demonstrated across multiple fields, and the ideas apply well to our subject at hand.
Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons, authors of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, describe anxiety as “a method of seeking two things: certainty and comfort. The problem is that it wants these two outcomes immediately and continually, yet life is full of surprises and discomforts, big and small.” Children need unstructured play, boredom, failure, pain, and uncertainty to develop, but so often we operate as though these are the very things from which to protect them. Many of our interventions on behalf of their discomfort may provide short-term relief at the expense of long-term growth.
As many anxious children move into adolescence and young adulthood, they carry the language of safetyism with them, insisting that the environments they inhabit - school, university, work - be scrubbed of emotionally triggering stimuli. Anxiety-related school absences are on the rise, and parents are learning just how little control they have once an adolescent refuses to leave the house. Some young people have been led to believe that even a reminder of negative experiences is likely to cause retraumatization, and they insist that challenging topics like abuse or discrimination be preceded by trigger warnings. There are threads of truth here; posttraumatic stress can be triggered by reminders, but there’s no evidence to support that these warnings are an appropriate or useful tool. In fact, what we do know is that avoidance of trauma reminders often contributes to the persistence of symptoms for individuals diagnosed with PTSD.
The list of triggering and unwelcome subject matters is growing. We are developing a cultural tendency to regard emotional discomfort as a sign that we are unsafe and to assign the protection of our feelings to others. The part that rubs me is that these developments are credited to the mental health field. Rather than safety, what we should be demanding of one another is trust. Can I trust you to respect my feelings? Can I trust you to give me the benefit of the doubt? Can I trust you to listen to me as I do to you? It is trust that binds us together, reinforces our willingness to try something hard, and guides us through our differences. Best of all, trust can exist in the absence of safety or agreement. After all, when Aladdin extended his hand to Princess Jasmine as they were being chased by a mob of angry guards, he didn’t say, “Do you feel safe?” He said, “Do you trust me?”
The only way to the other side of anxiety is through it. We must learn to take it with us to the party, let it ride shotgun, try to understand its origin, and then go forward anyway. Anxiety always wants the same thing, certainty and comfort, which makes it a predictable companion if not a pleasant one. Learning to manage anxiety is counterintuitive, and therapy can be a useful tool for enduring the pain of healing. For many, however, it is enough to remember this: The goal is not to get rid of your anxiety; the goal is to live your life despite it. It is not safety you are looking for, but courage.