Handling Judgment When You Have a Child with Anxiety

Contributed by proud mother and writer, Kelly Harbaugh.

Parents of children who suffer from anxiety have a lot of concerns on their plate.  Unfortunately, they often have to deal with an additional issue:  judgmental advice and comments from “amateur psychologists.”

Because awareness of childhood anxiety is still thin, adults who are unfamiliar with the problem often misinterpret it as bad parenting.  They assume that parents have just coddled or spoiled their child, and feel that it is their responsibility to correct the deficiency.

Dealing with anxiety can be exhausting, and the last thing a parent needs is to feel like she needs to defend herself.  Emotions can run high in these situations, so it is important to anticipate the problem and have a plan.

As the parent of a child who had an anxiety disorder, I learned that there are a few necessary tools for dealing with these situations.

Have confidence.

Confidence is the most important factor in these situations.  If you truly have confidence in what you are doing, then you will not be easily rattled.  The amount of confidence you exhibit can also limit the willingness of others to be aggressive with their opinions – or at least diffuse their initial comments.

This does not mean arrogance.  It also doesn’t mean that you have all of the answers.  We all have moments when we question our decisions.

However, you know your child well and you trust your instincts as a parent.   If you have read everything that you can, consulted the experts, and weighed that with your own experience to make decisions, then you should feel confident in the face of doubters.  At the very least, you know that you are most likely more informed than the other person.

Give grace.

I try to remind myself that if I did not have a child with this problem, I might have been “one of those people.”  I take a good look at the situation and try to see it from their perspective.    Having a true understanding of their view is the only way to have a mature, productive conversation.

Give them the benefit of the doubt, and start with the assumption that they are truly trying to understand and help, even if they are not going about it in a tactful way.

Don’t be defensive.

Defensiveness undermines confidence, raises emotions, and invites an attack.  Remember that confidence is your most valuable asset in this situation; protect it by keeping your cool.  If you find yourself being attacked anyway, then let the issue go.  No one said that you have to engage in every battle over childhood anxiety.

Be brief.

Don’t overwhelm people by becoming a walking brochure with 10 statistics in your back pocket.  Try to come up with a brief sentence or two that tells people what they absolutely need to know, and save the detail for those who are interested enough to ask.

For example, I have a child who loved to play sports.  However, for the first couple of years, she was not able to speak to her coaches.  I wanted to give them enough information to be prepared, but did not want them to feel like they had been given a huge burden that would require hours of studying.

When a new coach would call me at the beginning of the season, I would let them know that my daughter had an anxiety disorder and that I just didn’t want them to be taken off guard if she did not speak right away.  I would then tell them that she functions well and follows directions well, but it can be easy to misinterpret her demeanor as disrespect, and I thought it would be important to know that ahead of time.  I rarely went into more detail, and almost everyone was appreciative and easy to work with.

Accept that not everyone will understand.

While most of our experiences have been positive, there have been a few instances in which people clearly thought I was a nutcase parent.  We did have a coach who treated my daughter like she was invisible and made snide comments like “if you are afraid of germs then you don’t need to be playing this sport.”

Besides the fact that fear of germs was not one of our issues, this coach was clearly just an arrogant, bothered man who really wasn’t worth an argument.  It was one season, and one bad apple out of several wonderful coaches over the years is not a bad average.

There will be people who are just not interested in learning about your situation.  Oh, well.  Those are the people that you just have to let go.

Remember that you are setting an example for your child.

When all else fails, remember that your child is watching.  Some of the best life lessons can appear as a result of conflict.

How can you expect your child to be confident in difficult situations if they can’t see you handle them gracefully?  I know what you feel like saying or doing.  I’ve had those thoughts myself.

However, if you can show your child that you are confident and that naysayers don’t matter, then you communicate to them that they don’t have anything to be ashamed of.   The message you give them today will be the one that they take with them and apply to their own worth.

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4 thoughts on “Handling Judgment When You Have a Child with Anxiety”

  1. Watching my child struggle breaks my heart. Watching how others relate or demean him as a result of his anxiety leads to extreme frustration, anger, and even hopelessness, sometimes. But I know my son and I know his amazing qualities. I think the one thing that keeps me sane with other kids/parents is remembering I’m a model for both my kids. And how I handle adversity and overcome struggles is being observed by those small eyes and big ears! If I strike my shin and yell out a cuss word, my precious three-year-old will do the same. Life lessons are no different. So I keep my explanations short (unless it warrants otherwise) and try to take the high road.

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  2. I would say in terms of judgment, make sure you’re not judging yourself as a parent either. We (my wife and I) had our first encounter with anxiety when our first born child was about 4. Every now and then, he would say he has a stomachache and he doesn’t feel like going to school. The frequency of complaint increased as years passed. We didn’t know what it was and the docs always advised some OTC like peptobismol to help with the stomachaches. Needless to say that solutions were temporary.

    With passage of time and living with the anxiety, still undiagnosed, he would have trouble sleeping. He developed signs of minor depression, but WE were STILL treating him for stomachaches. Ugh. It wasn’t until his first year of college when we found a good clinician who diagnosed my son with generalized anxiety. It was amazing how every symptom he read off is what my son went through. But all those years of living with anxiety, I felt had somehow robbed him of some of the pleasures of childhood.

    My son got help. I think one of the biggest reliefs was that he actually knew what was going on with him – there were others suffering the same way, he wasn’t going crazy. He learned coping techniques and he’s doing very, very well now.

    Anyway, I see a lot of young parents here and I want to say to you not to judge yourself as a parent when it comes to helping your child. Do the best that you can to support your children. Love them and, of course, find them help. But remember, while you are put here to take care of your kids, please don’t bear the burden of everything they go through on your own shoulders.

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  3. When your child exhibits shyness to strangers and even family members, you start to wonder what’s wrong. Why does he hide behind my leg? What will people think? How do his actions make me look as a parent? This blog post has given me a few very helpful tools. You’ve given me hope. Yes, my son feels anxious when he’s around people he doesn’t know well. I don’t need to defend his actions or make him say hello. A simple, “He doesn’t want to talk right now” is enough. People might not understand his shyness, but that’s okay. I’ll continue to support my son and love him no matter how anxious he feels.

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  4. We lacked the confidence to deal with our child’s anxiety. It ultimately cost us our marriage. Neither of us knew what to do and ended up either blaming each other or reacting terribly whenever the teachers didn’t understand our son’s behavior issues. I felt like a bad parent all the time.

    I think I could have pulled it together if everyone wasn’t condemning me about my “lack of parenting skills.” That kind of lack of support really hurt me. My child is a teen now and we’re getting along better. He’s not as anxious and can make friends and socialize better than when he was younger so it’s easier for us to bond now. We have a lot of work to do but I think we can get it done. Maybe other parents out there have to “ride it out” like we did and maybe not have as many casualties along the way.

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