Being a kid is tough. There’s a lot of uncertainty—about tomorrow’s doctor’s appointment, that birthday party they’re supposed to attend, or how long Mum will be on an aeroplane. Anxiety sometimes surfaces in the form of questions. So many questions. Often the same questions over and over and over. They want to, need to know: What exactly is going to happen?
You want to help your child, but you’re not a bottomless pit of answers, and even if you could offer up some information every time, it still wouldn’t give them the reassurance they’re grasping for. Many parents get frustrated, declaring “I’m not answering any more questions so stop asking!” ... and then feel terribly and go back to answering more questions.
Eli R. Lebowitz, associate director of the anxiety and mood disorders program at the Yale Child Study Center, offers a strategy that might break the cycle: Set aside a specific time for “worry questions.”
For instance, you might tell an anxious child that she may only ask questions about the event or issue she’s worried about—say, the weekend schedule—for five minutes in the morning and the evening. If an anxiety-induced question arises outside of that designated time slot, remind the child to wait for the next session.
“This has two effects,” Lebowitz tells me:
It puts the child more in control of the worry because instead of having to immediately ‘solve’ the problem as soon as it comes up, they are doing it on their own terms and schedule. It also shows children that worries can often go away on their own even if you do nothing, because frequently when the designated time arrives, they are no longer even thinking about it. The child can learn that they can be ok just waiting it out. As a result, they become less vulnerable to anxiety and less dependent on the parent.
Without guidelines around questions, Lebowitz says anxious children will never know if they’ll receive an answer or not, and will therefore always feel compelled to push for one. “It would be like to trying to go to a post office that is sometimes open and sometimes closed with no regular schedule,” he says. “You would keep going back all the time until you got in!”
The goal is to reduce “parental accommodation,” which refers to all the ways parents change their behaviour to help kids feel less anxious. If the child has separation anxiety, say, a parent might sleep next to her. Or if the kid has anxiety-related stomachaches, the parent might repeatedly keep him out of school.
Or, yes, it might also mean being a human Alexa, answering every anxiety-fuelled question that comes at them: “Who will be there? Will I have to speak? Will you stay near me?” While all of these may be normal, good-intentioned responses, research has shown that such behaviour leaves children suffering.
Instead, the Yale therapists encourage parental support, which is about accepting and understanding how uncomfortable, nervous or scared a child feels, but also showing confidence that they can cope on their own.
By setting a time for “worry questions,” you’re doing just that. You’re giving your kids a place to put their anxieties, so they don’t have to hang on to them all day.