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, except when it doesn’t.
Some children get hooked on reassurance. The seek it multiple times a day, often about the very same thing. And the relief they feel when a parent affirms they have nothing to worry about, well, that relief is short-lived.
So, how can you tell? 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?
- 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.
- 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 in 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 worry 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, empathize with your child while declining to answer the question, “I can see that you are worried, but we’ve already 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.