Uncovering parenting tactics that fortify children’s resilience and coping is of utmost importance, especially in this era of global uncertainty and stress. Anxiety is one of the two most common mental health disorders among children ages 3 through 17, affecting roughly 1 in 11 children, according to the CDC. And not surprisingly, since the start of the pandemic, anxiety rates have doubled in children globally. One critical question that frequently surfaces in the news and parenting discussions is whether or not (and how much) to accommodate a child’s anxiety.
Accommodation refers to any action parents engage in, or purposefully do not engage in, with the purpose of alleviating their child’s anxiety or stress. For example, parents may let their child choose whether or not to engage in activities or sports outside of the home. They may speak for their children in public when their child is afraid to speak on their own or avoid having visitors because it makes the child uncomfortable. They may repeatedly reassure their child or respond to repeated questions about fears and anxieties. When their child becomes frustrated, they might attempt to remove the stressor or provide the desired item or activity in order to extinguish the feelings.
In accommodating families, routines are often adjusted to avoid anxiety. Family territory becomes smaller as parents provide only certain meals that are accepted by the child, go to only certain places the child feels comfortable, or adjust their work and other responsibilities to cater to the child’s needs and demands.
Accommodation is a very understandable and typically well-intentioned behavior that can occur for a wide range of reasons. Parents are hard wired to protect their children from harm or danger. This protection is a healthy and normal part of parenting when real danger is present. Further, parents experience stress when observing their child experience negative emotional states. Accommodating can provide immediate relief to both parent and child.
While it is an understandable strategy when attempting to deal with challenging child behavior, parents should consider a cost-benefit analysis. That is, your child’s long-term confidence and coping skills may be traded for short-term comfort and calm. Long term avoidance can keep you and your anxious child stuck in a frustrating cycle where the fear gains power and control over your child, family, and home.
Research suggests that family accommodation maintains child anxiety over time, and is linked to a higher severity of symptoms and impairment and a poorer response to treatment. Further, parenting approaches characterized by low expectation or demand placed on the child have been found to erode child confidence and agency over time. Children are observed to become more dependent on their parents rather than less. In contrast, parenting styles that involve high responsiveness combined with clear and reasonable expectations tend to produce kids that are more resilient, socially skilled, and creative.
So what does this all mean in practical application? What can parents do now to instill long-term confidence and coping skills for their children?
Focusing on being present, getting involved, and offering your support in trying situations is a good place to start. Creating a space for open communication, where you can talk with your children about important topics early and often, helps build expectation setting and listening skills. And, while it may not always seem it, parents are often the number one influence on the choices your children will make; make sure to instill stress management skills and critical thinking through the example you set.
While these actions are everyday things we can do, it isn’t always easy. Many factors make taking these steps, and sticking to them, difficult. You are not alone! There are resources that can support our parenting and help support our children:
All of this becomes possible when we take a step back, manage our own emotions, and avoid jumping in to rescue or do the task for them. If parents encourage behavior within children’s capabilities and scaffold the process, children will often rise to the occasion. That’s how they develop grit and persistence. In contrast, if we have too many or too difficult challenges that jump huge steps or are beyond their capabilities, children are more likely to refuse, meltdown, or give up easily.
To be sure, any approach needs to take into account the child’s developmental capabilities, temperament, and personality, as well as their environment. One size does not fit all. Older kids can deal with more agency and ownership. Younger children may need the scales tipped towards more scaffolding. Some go getters need barely a gentle push to keep up their momentum, while more behaviorally inhibited children need a stronger push and clearer boundaries. Children with neurodiverse profiles, such as children on the autism spectrum, may need greater levels of accommodation in order to successfully participate in daily life, while still supporting them in building skills and participating in situations they need to show up for.
In sum, parenting requires a balanced approach. In our hope to raise functioning adults that are competent and confident in handling life’s challenges, we must weigh our desire to protect with the benefits of allowing our children to experience normal life stressors and reasonable expectations for their behavior and participation. We must balance the provision of support and scaffolding around tasks with the endowment of responsibility and freedom to our children in generating their own solutions, learning from their mistakes, and riding through the emotions in the moment.
Resources, videos, and research articles on reducing accommodation and increasing supportive involvement can be found on the website for the Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) program, developed by Dr. Eli Lebowitz at Yale Child Study Center. Parents can also find a list of providers that have received training to provide this intervention on this website.
For more in depth reading on this topic:
Veronica Raggi, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist that specializes in treating anxiety disorders in youth. She is the owner of Brighter Outlook Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, LLC, and has over 15 years of experience providing comprehensive and integrated care for children, teens, and adults with anxiety and co-occurring disorders. Dr. Raggi is first author of Exposure Therapy for Treating Anxiety in Children and Adolescents, a comprehensive, practical resource on the “how-to” of implementing exposure-based therapy for youth with anxiety. You can learn more about Dr. Raggi’s work on her website.