"Hakuna Matata- it means no worries" (from The Lion King). This is a phrase I often sing to my baby. We even put a picture of the phrase on his nursery wall. As a Mommy, I never want my son to feel anything but happy and I don't want him to ever feel anxious. As a Psychologist, I actually do want him to experience worry and anxiety at certain points in his life, within reason. Why?
It is unrealistic and unhelpful to be happy and carefree all of the time. Negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger serve as motivation to make changes in our life. These feelings provide feedback to us that something is not quite right, very wrong, unsafe, dangerous, or not the right fit for us. It can also be an indicator that we need to develop better coping skills or seek professional help.
As parents, we might want to rescue or save our children from worries and anxious feelings. I believe this is a natural parental reaction. But attempts to save your child from anxiety can actually be making anxiety stronger.
Picture this. A child we will call Bobby is looking at a group of peers playing at a birthday party. Mom and Dad know that Bobby has concerns about playing with new people and is nervous to initiate play. Mom and Dad want him to have fun and end his anxiety so they bring him over to the group of peers and the parents initiate the play for him. They might say, "Bobby wants to play with you. Can he join in?" Sounds ok enough, right? Sure, Bobby can now play with his peers. But let's suppose there is a problem during the play such as a peer takes a toy away from him. Bobby becomes nervous and looks for parental support to solve the problem for him. In fact, Bobby learns to wait for his parents to initiate play for him in the future too. Bobby has just given his anxiety and worries a big reward by allowing his parents to speak for him. Bobby learns that he is not strong enough to deal with his worries, so he is likely to avoid situations on his own unless a parent is there to speak and solve problems for him.
This is one example of how anxiety can be reinforced. There are other ways anxiety can be reinforced and other circumstances when it is totally appropriate and helpful for parents to help their children initiate play and solve problems as described above. My goal in this month's post is to challenge parents to take a deeper look into their child's behavior and see if anxiety has been reinforced accidentally. You can discuss your observations and concerns with a mental health professional who can help you with managing your child's behavior.
I hope you and your children do not have too many worries and that you can recognize anxious feelings as providing you with valuable information.
And maybe sing a song of "Hakuna Matata" to someone today.