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  • Writer's pictureHaim Omer

Children’s fears: The secret of parental space.

The parents of anxious children often find it hard to maintain their personal boundaries. Their bed, room, ears, body, time and leisure are not their own, but are often invaded by the child’s anxious reactions. A series of studies by Eli Lebowitz on our approach to parents of anxious children showed that when parents learn to restore and protect their personal boundaries, the child’s anxiety and distress diminish significantly. And what is not less important: The parents’ distress diminishes as well!

We all know that when the baby is born, the mother’s availability is virtually unlimited. Probably many babies “would like” to perpetuate this situation. Thus they protest loudly when the mother becomes gradually less available. Fortunately, mothers have needs of their own, reducing their readiness to service the baby unlimitedly. The renowned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the expression “good enough mother” to stress that mothers do not need to be perfect. On the contrary! If they were perfectly attuned and always sensitive to their child’s needs, the baby would probably not grow well. Babies need mothers who are not always immediately responsive. Therefore, even the mother’s headaches or menstrual pains may help the baby to develop. At those times the mother’s availability diminishes naturally, allowing the child to learn how to cope.

However, children with a predisposition to anxiety (probably an inborn tendency) put their parents’ boundaries to a test, demanding total protection against unpleasant experiences also as they grow up. These kids find it hard to sleep or stay on their own, or even to let other caregivers take the place of the parents. In those cases, the parents have to take special care of their own space, so as to withstand the child’s excessive neediness. In so doing they will actually be helping the child, as “parental accommodation” to the child’s demands and expectations badly aggravates the child’s symptoms and dysfunction. In order to protect their parental boundaries, they need to develop some skills and insights, which are crucial not only for the child’s wellbeing but also for their own. The following tips and principles may help them move in this direction.

  • My wellbeing, energies and privacy are vital for my child – Only parents who enjoy a stable personal and parental space can buttress their child against anxiety. Parents who are carried away by the child’s demands deprives themselves and the child of the experience of an anchor.

  • My child must feel that I’m not afraid of his/her fears - The parents of anxious children often tell them “There is no reason to be afraid!” However, the anxious child is not easily persuaded. Fortunately, there is another message, that can provide the anxious child with a surprising focus of stability. In our work with the parents of anxious children we showed again and again that when the parent tells the child, “I am able to withstand your anxiety!” the situation changes completely. This message must of course be backed by acts. For instance, that the parents will no longer protect the child from each and every anxious experience. When the parents focus themselves on their own ability to withstand the child’s anxious reactions, achieving a measure of self-control, the child experiences less anxiety. If, however, the parent gives in to the child’s anxiety, an alliance of anxieties is created, in which the child’s anxiety becomes the product of the child’s original anxiety and the parent’s anxious reaction.

  • My child will probably cope better in the presence of others than in mine – Children are usually most dependent in the presence of their parents. When they are with others they are often capable of displaying more maturity and even courage. This is true for two reasons: a) they know their parents can be “squeezed” more easily, that is, they are less able to withstand their crying and distress, and b) the parents’ presence makes the child more childish, or in psychological terms, “regressive”. This has led us to our technique of involving the extended family and the parents’ friends as supporters of the anxious child. Many children who were previously unable to sleep in their own beds became able to do so when their parents went away for the weekend, leaving them with their uncle and aunt.

  • Anxiety is not usually a traumatic experience. What is really damaging is to be continuously protected from anxious feelings – It is important for parents to understand that anxiety is a self-limiting emotion for concrete physiological reasons. Thus, when anxiety begins to rise, the body creates antagonistic processes to contain it. Parents who do not allow their child to experience anxiety for any stretch of time, actually prevent the child from having this experience. Those children grow up in the belief that if they didn’t get immediate protection from the parents, their anxiety would keep rising until they collapsed. To overcome this false belief, the child must undergo experiences of enduring anxiety. When parents understand this, they can tell the child “I know that I am able to endure your anxiety!” It surprises them to hear that this is actually a very calming message, for it implies that “I know that you are also able to endure it!” The parent doesn’t have to say this explicitly, for it might tempt the child to prove him wrong.

  • Overcoming anxiety is a step by step process – Knowing this will protect the parents and the child from disappointments. Thus, a child with separation anxiety will be able to make significant progress by staying alone for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes and so forth. Each small step is an achievement. Actually an achievement for both sides. The parent should also get a smiley at each little step the child makes.

  • “Support instead of protecting!” - When the parent takes a supportive stance, he/she stands by the child’s side, but the child is the one who does most of the work. When the parent takes a protective stance, he/she stands between the child and the anxiety situation. The child does not cope, because the parents obviate the need for him/her to do so.

In each of the above, the parents are actually learning to focus on themselves, restoring and protecting their personal and parental space. As surprising as it may seem, the parents can help their child best, if they focus on their own needs, while remaining empathic to those of the child. Thus, the first tip (My wellbeing, energies and privacy are vital for my child) reminds the parents that they need a safe and protected space of their own, so as best to radiate safety to their child. The second tip (My child must feel that I’m not afraid of his/her fears) is a turning of the tables on parents’ often ineffective attempts to calm their anxious child, helping them instead to focus on calming themselves. This is a task that most parents can master if they set their hearts to it. The third tip (My child will probably cope better in the presence of others than in mine) reminds the parents that they need support, so that the child may enjoy a wider support network and develop a better sense of belonging. The fourth tip (Anxiety is not usually a traumatic experience. What is really damaging is to be continuously protected from anxious feelings) tells parents that when they take a deep breath and count to a hundred before running to rescue their child, by the time they finish counting the child will probably be no longer in need of being rescued. The fifth tip (Overcoming anxiety is a step by step process) inoculates parents against self-defeating expectations. The parents are then better able to transfer hopeful and realistic expectations to their child. And the last tip (Support instead of protecting!) helps the parents overcome the damaging need to act in the child’s place. When the parents learn to implement this principles, their wellbeing improves no less than the child’s. This is the secret of the parental anchoring function. Parents offer the child an anchor, when they learn to anchor themselves.

You can find a much detailed of this approach in my book “Courageous Parents”. References to the research quoted in this post can be found under “Publications and Research” in the present site.

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