The Bigger Picture
When you have a child who is struggling with anxiety, sometimes your relationship with them gets so wrapped up in the issues they are struggling with, that you lose sight of the bigger picture. The primary interaction between you and your child becomes strictly about their problem behavior. Eventually, everyone gets so tangled up in the struggle that your relationship gets stuck.
An Emphasis On Strengths and Values
As a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety issues, I have first-hand knowledge of this dilemma.
Several years ago, I worked with a young woman who was inextricably caught in a struggle with perfectionism and social anxiety. One of the most powerful moments in treatment came after we gave her and her family a homework assignment: to engage with one another and simply enjoy being together. The objective was to find something fun to do together, completely separate from the client’s anxiety disorder. What the family found was astonishing. Through an enjoyable shared activity, the family was able to positively engage with one another and remember what they enjoyed about one another before the anxiety disorder took over their lives. Once this positive reengagement had begun, the family was able make significant progress on their previously blocked journey to recovery.
This emphasis on strengths and values is one of the great breakthroughs of the positive psychology movement, which focuses on what’s right with you instead of what’s wrong with you. The goal is to approach life’s challenges by utilizing core strengths and values to build resilience and coping strategies. In other words, a positive psychology approach works to help you discover your strengths, which enable you to pursue your greater well-being from there.
A focus on what’s right with you instead of what’s wrong with you.
One of the best places to start with positive psychology is by using something called the Values in Action survey (VIA). It is a free, fifteen-minute assessment that helps you identify your character strengths and access the positive aspects of your personality which make you feel authentic.
Completing the survey helps you understand and rank your core strengths with a simple list of your best character qualities. From there, you are able to draw upon those innate strengths when you encounter stress, anxiety or a challenging situation. The goal is to lean into these character strengths in order to help you deal with difficult situations. Knowing and applying your highest character strengths is the key to confronting difficult emotions and interpersonal problems.
As parents, engaging with a positive psychology approach can be a refreshing and hopeful way of addressing a situation which has otherwise become gridlocked over time. It is important to remember that this strategy does not advocate blatantly ignoring the challenges and issues. Instead, the intent is to first build on your strengths, and use them to your advantage as you address the challenges with your children.
How to build a stronger relationship with your child suffering from anxiety.
Now that we have established a basic understanding of positive psychology, what are some ways you can build and nurture your relationship with your child?
The first thing you can do is to work to find common strengths between you and your child. What do you and your child enjoy doing together, or have enjoyed doing together in the past? Consider hobbies and activities you and your child are both interested in while paying attention to what strengths you both share. That is the common ground you need to deepen your bond and broaden the focus away from any troubling anxiety they are experiencing.
The next question becomes how do you then engage them? The best place to start is to take time intentionally observing what they like to do and what brings them joy. A useful exercise with younger children is to ask “what games do you like playing? How does that game work?” You do not necessarily have to pick up a video game controller but expressing genuine interest in what they are excited about goes a long way. If they love basketball, you can ask specifics of how the game works and allow them to teach you.
One of my core strengths, for example, is love of learning. That’s just one of the strengths that defines who I am and makes me feel alive. So, I might use that love of learning to engage with my child around something they care about and ask them to teach me. If love of learning is one of your primary strengths, you might ask your child to teach you about TikTok, or Roblox, or something else that they have a passion for.
As your child feels more and more that you enjoy being around them, you will have a much easier time helping them see that their entire identity is not whatever issue they’re having. They are a full person. There is more to them beyond their anxiety.
This is a critical step because your child needs to trust that you’re not always looking for their flaws. Instead, you are focused on what is great about them, offering recognition of their strengths, and expressing confidence in their abilities to tackle challenges.
An Ongoing Process
I want to be clear that this is not a quick and easy fix. It is important not to think that you can do this one time and solve the problem. Positive reengagement is an ongoing process that takes patience and endurance. Just as your child’s anxiety took time to develop, so will the process of rebuilding your strengths-focused relationship.
If you find yourself curious about this and would like more information or guidance to better understand your family’s dynamic, please reach out for professional guidance.