The Myth of Accommodation: How to Really Help Kids Manage Anxiety
It’s a well-known fact that the pandemic is taking a toll on everyone’s mental health—regardless of age, gender, or race. Sure, we’re all affected in different ways, but the uncertainty and the constant change are enough to keep anyone on edge.
We should rightly be concerned about how this is affecting our children.
In fact, children and teens are considered to be at higher risk of more severe response to the stress of crisis. During the pandemic, children’s lives have been overturned perhaps more than any other group. Most children and teens are experiencing little or no interaction with friends, limited or no in-person school, canceled extracurricular activities, and changing family circumstances.
The schedules and expectations that normally provide structure to our children’s lives are now obsolete.
Understandably, reported anxiety in children has increased since the onset of the pandemic. Whatever role we play in a child’s life—grandparent, parent, virtual teacher, or caregiver—we have a responsibility to help them understand and manage the anxieties that are inherent during this time.
Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience.
Our bodies are hard-wired to sense danger and respond accordingly. Sometimes we may perceive danger in a job interview, a big family move, or flying on an airplane. The truth is, the possibility of something going wrong is always present, so feeling some anxiety is perfectly normal—and it’s important that we help our kids understand this. Nervousness, fear, and worry are all a part of being human.
Sometimes, however, you may notice your child feeling and expressing anxiety more frequently.
You should always be involved in helping your child cope with their anxiety, but if it becomes persistent, affects their ability to focus or sleep, or prevents them from participating in normal activities, it’s time to seek more help.
The Myth of Accomodation
There are various ways that parents and caregivers respond to children’s anxiety. Some of us brush it off with a “get over it” approach, while some are even more detached and uninvolved.
But at some point, nearly all of us accommodate.
While none of these approaches are very effective, let alone validating, research has proven that the later—accommodation—is actually detrimental to a child. And it turns out that accommodation may be the most common approach—95 percent of parents with an anxious child do it.
So what is accommodation?
Accommodation is exactly what it sounds like. When we as parents or teachers engage in accommodation, we are bending and adapting our behavior, our schedule, or our choices to the child’s anxiety.
Your child can’t sleep alone, so every night you climb into bed with her and slip out once she’s asleep. You cross your fingers she doesn’t wake in the middle of the night and notice you aren’t there, dreading the meltdown that will ensue.
Your son feels nervous about being alone at recess so he begs not to go to school. Every day is a brutal fight, so you look into home-schooling options.
Your child feels anxiety when new people are in your home, so you never host book club.
Without guidance, a child’s natural response to anxiety is avoidance. Accomodation enables the child to avoid the things that cause them anxiety.
This may sound like a viable solution, but in reality it only leads to more problems.
So why do we accommodate? We’re exhausted, we’re busy, time is of the essence, etc. Oftentimes, accommodation seems like the quickest and easiest option, and it may work in the short term. We might believe that accommodating is basically comforting and will actually help our children with their anxiety. However, research shows that in the long run, our children will pay for it.
Children who avoid the very things that cause them anxiety—and are enabled in that avoidance—never learn how to handle those things.
Instead, they learn to rely on you. Accommodation fuels the fire of anxiety and avoidance. If you sleep alongside your daughter every night to calm her anxiety, when will she be able to sleep alone? If your son never goes to school because he’s afraid of being alone, what will he do when he is alone? And what happens to your child who avoids meeting new people?
The goal is not to avoid the tantrums, the tears, or the meltdowns—the goal is to embrace the messy process of learning to manage the things that trigger anxiety.
How to Really Help Your Kids
You’re not the cause of your child’s anxiety, but you do need to help them learn to manage it. Children don’t come into the world knowing how to recognize and regulate emotion. Like using a fork or walking, it’s a skill they need to master.
Rather than accommodate your child’s natural anxieties, wean them off their dependence on you and instead, help them discover their own ability to handle triggers.
Yale professor Eli Lebowitz developed a new treatment called SPACE to give parents the tools they need to help their children cope with anxiety. SPACE teaches parents to do two things instead of accomodating: 1) offer validation and 2) express confidence in the child. It looks like this:
“I understand you feel scared of sleeping alone. I know you can do it.”
What we often don’t realize when we accommodate is that we are sending a subtle (and unintentional) message to our children that they are incapable of doing the things that scare them. You can’t sleep alone, so I will sleep with you. You can’t go to school, so we'll home school. You can’t handle strangers, so I won’t invite anyone new to the house.
Children need to understand that anxiety can be tolerated and that they are completely capable of handling it on their own.
Putting an end to the habit of accommodation and instead helping your kids face their fears will be a process. It may be slow, but stay consistent. As you give your children more opportunities to handle their own anxiety, they will begin to feel more confident. Then, as they encounter new fears and worries, they’ll remember that they are capable of handling the experience on their own.
Remember: anxiety is an emotion we all experience, and children need extra help learning how to manage it.
In this particularly challenging time, let’s take every opportunity to help our kids learn to manage their anxieties. Taking the more tedious approach of validating and expressing confidence will pay off for you and your kids in the long run.