Is Your Child Seeking Constant Reassurance? (How to Address Anxiety)
Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of 10 books for children selling over 1 million copies in 23 languages.
It’s the older-kid version of “Why?” A question that arises from your child’s increasing capacity to think about and anticipate the future. How exciting! But with this newfound cognitive ability comes the discomfort of uncertainty. “What if it rains on my birthday?” “What if our dog gets out?” “What if my friends laugh at my new shirt?”
Parents typically answer these questions. And why not? Asking is how children gather information about the world, and answering makes everyone feel better, but only in the short term.
Some children get hooked on reassurance. They seek it multiple times a day, often about the very same thing. And the relief they feel, well, that relief is short-lived. Also, no one can predict the future. If you reassure your child that a bad thing isn’t going to happen, and then it does, at best your child will be unprepared and at worst, they’ll lose faith in you.
Routinely assuaging worries is like putting a band-aid on a larger wound. Although it provides temporary relief, it is far more effective to help your child learn to manage the anxiety they feel.
So, how can you strike a balance between reassuring your child and teaching them healthy ways to cope with their fear? And how do you know if your child is genuinely seeking information, which is perfectly appropriate for you to give, or going down a rabbit hole of worry?
When Does Reassurance Seeking Become Excessive?
1. Does your child accept your answer? When a child is genuinely seeking information, they are able to accept and cope with your response, whatever it may be. “If it rains, we’ll move your party indoors.” “If the dog gets out, we’ll shake a box of treats and he’ll come running.” “If your friends laugh at your shirt, you can tell them you like it, which is all that really matters.” Anxious children, on the other hand, are looking for a very particular answer, and only that answer will suffice. They want to hear, “It’s not going to rain” or “The dog isn’t going to get out.” They want a guarantee that the thing they fear isn’t going to happen. Period. .
2. Are you hearing the same question repeatedly? Children seeking information ask questions once. They might not like your answer, but they are able to hear it, absorb it and, importantly, remember it. Anxious children cannot do that. Because they are seeking reassurance rather than information, they need to ask the same question again and again. Every time the worried feeling returns, every time they feel unsure, they need you to tell them they are safe. The inability to tolerate even a shred of uncertainty fuels the endless dance of worry, reassurance, relief. Worry, reassurance, relief. Worry, reassurance, relief.
If your child asks the same question repeatedly, and if there is clearly a “right” answer that you are supposed to give, it’s safe to say that your child is asking the question not to be informed but rather to mitigate anxiety.
Unfortunately, relying on reassurance to quiet anxiety never works. Like any addiction – be it to chocolate or screens or cocaine – there is always the need for more. Getting a “hit” of reassurance calms an anxious child at the moment while wiring their brain in unproductive ways.
So, it’s important to remember the distinction between information-seeking and reassurance-seeking and to respond to the latter differently. The first time your child asks a worried question, answer it truthfully. You might say, “We’ll watch the forecast as it gets closer to your birthday. Whatever happens, we’ll find a way to celebrate.” The second and all subsequent times your child asks, empathize with them, but do not repeatedly answer the question.
One way to acknowledge your child’s feelings without enabling this reassurance-seeking behavior is to say, “I can see that you are worried. I know that’s hard, but we’ve talked about this.” Help your child use a worry-management technique such as talking back to worry, quieting their brain with slow breathing, or accepting uncertainty and moving on. All are teachable skills.
Or you might decide to seek cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which case a professional will teach your child to better manage their thoughts and behaviors. For example, a therapist may have your child role-play worst-case scenarios. You can reinforce these strategies at home. For example, rather than reassuring your child with, "It won't rain on your birthday," you can ask, "What are the backup options if it does rain?" and then work with your child to list alternative solutions like going to the movies, going bowling, or rescheduling for the following weekend.
Having your child seek reassurance provides a golden opportunity to teach life skills related to self-soothing and problem-solving. It may seem difficult to step out of the reassurance dance and respond in a different way, but doing so will make your relationship with your child stronger, and make your child stronger, too.
Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of 10 books for children selling over 1 million copies in 23 languages. A child psychologist, parent coach, and popular speaker, Dr. Dawn translates the latest research into actionable strategies to free young worriers from anxiety, helping children live happier lives. For tips and tricks, you can use daily visit DawnHuebnerPhD.com.