My Slow-to-Warm-Up Daughter Might have an Anxiety Disorder, But I won’t Let Her

I locked myself in the car, tears forming in my eyes and guilt taking over my heart. You just left your shrieking toddler in the pool with the instructor when she clearly wanted you. I vacillated between feeling like a horrible mother and rationalization, trying to think of any relevant research study I knew about temperament, anxiety, and parental response. I teach Child Development, after all, and specialize in couples and family therapy in my clinical practice – you’d think I could come up with something!

At that moment, though, my mind was blank. 

I didn’t expect my girl to go easy – splashing and smiling in the pool, showing off her growing water skills and independence like some of the other littles. That wasn’t her temperament. She was slow-to-warm-up and risk-averse by nature and I knew transitions were not her thing. Nor were new situations or new people. She’s more like my husband – gentle, insightful, and a quiet observer – someone who cautiously watches from a distance, initially uneasy, but who, with encouragement and prodding, will enter in and engage. 

I knew Thomas and Chess’s classic research on temperament styles and the importance of “goodness of fit,” the match between the child’s temperament and her environment. I was aware that temperament – which is biological and innate – needs to be accommodated and respected, especially when there is a potential mismatch. And I knew I had a mismatch on my hands with my firstborn. Perhaps more importantly, I knew my husband and I had the power – and therefore the responsibility – of creating an environment where our daughter could reach her potential. 

Like every parent, I hate to see my child hurting. I don’t want her to be in pain — physically or psychologically. It breaks my heart. And, like most of us, my instinctual response is to make it better. To comfort her and put her at ease.

As a psychologist, we call this accommodating. It’s the I’ll do whatever I can in my power to not make you feel anxious, worried, or afraid response. I’ll join you in swim class even though I don’t have a bathing suit with me or I’ll just take you out of this particular class altogether. Indeed, those were my instincts in the moment. Thankfully, my husband saved me from acting on them. He walked me to the car, put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Our girl will be fine; she’ll figure it out.” Then he headed back to the pool. 

I sat in the car, took deep breaths, and then thought of research regarding the positive correlation between shyness in children and anxiety, and what I knew to be true about accommodation and anxiety. I recalled what I’ve said in my clinical practice to many well-intended, loving parents before I myself was one. I would explain that when we accommodate, the tension, discomfort, fear, and anxiety dissipates for our children (and therefore us!) in the moment but gets worse in the long run.*  AND the message behind the message is “You actually can’t do this on your own so I’m going to do it for you.”  Talk about a double whammy. 

I have had more than ample opportunity to prepare, validate, comfort, and empower my daughter for novel or challenging situations ever since that I-locked-myself-in-the-car-so-I-wouldn’t-hear-my-sweet-girl-screaming day. Often I feel confident and assured, knowing I’m doing right by her. There are days, however, when self-doubt and guilt creeps in. It happened recently, but it coincided with my reading about folks at Yale who piloted a program for treating children with anxieties. Their treatment: work with the parents. That’s right, the parents were to attend weekly therapy sessions for twelve weeks so they could learn more effective skills to both comfort and empower their children, thus helping them face their fears as opposed to feeding into them. The results: exciting and effective! 

My now-teenager will always be slow-to-warm-up; the inborn mismatch between us isn’t going away, but neither is the goodness of fit that we have discovered together.

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*For those who are interested, this is all about learning theory and the principles of conditioning and reinforcement. If I had joined my eldest in the pool or taken her out of lessons, I would have employed avoidance as a coping strategy. My daughter would have relaxed right away (symptom reduction), thus reinforcing the use of avoidance by the return to equilibrium (which is the goal). The reduction of symptoms will cause avoidance to occur again since it was “effective”.  

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