Accommodating Anxiety

Accommodation, also called enabling, occurs when you give in to your child’s anxiety rather than letting your child tolerate some discomfort and learn to use coping tools. Accommodation is commonplace in families of children with anxiety. It often starts out innocently enough. For example, when you are trying to make it on time to soccer practice and all that stands in your way is a simple promise to stay and watch, rather than drop off and go. Or when your child refuses to go to bed unless you kiss him one last time. However, after a while, the demand for accommodation grows. Soon your child cannot go anywhere without you and takes an hour to get to bed, when i could be a 10 minute bedtime routine. It's often a surprise to families when they realize just how much the accommodation has grown overtime.

Recognizing that accommodation is in effect is the first step. However, you are soon confronted with a dilemma: Do you push your child to manage their anxiety without accommodating them? But I can’t do that, my child won’t be able to cope! you say. Or do you hold and keep accommodating? But I don’t want to do that either, it doesn’t work! you reply.  Both statements are correct. For long-standing anxiety that has demanded months or even years of accommodation, suddenly cutting it off cold turkey can be very distressing for a child. But continuing to accommodate is making things worse.

Fortunately, using the Facing My Fears format you can gradually start to roll back the accommodation in a step-by-step, planned and predictable way. Once you explain to your child how his or her anxiety bully is bossing him/her around, and that you feel confident you can create a plan to take back control, the work can readily begin. Most children and adolescents understand this. For those who don’t, you can use popular stories to assist. For example, Harry Potter (i.e. Malfoy), Franklin is Bossy, Arthur series, Star Wars, Lego, and more.

Then when the accommodation situation occurs, you can remind your child, “I know this will probably be really frustrating, but I don’t want to feed your anxiety and help it grow. Is there another way I can support you or help you face this?” Encouraging them to use tools from their My Anxiety Plan (MAP) will help them feel supported, as well as using points or small rewards to motivate. As your child repeatedly experiences success without needing so much accommodation, the internal positive feelings can help continue to motivate additional change.

Note: Sometimes during this process unexpected challenges confront you and your child. You may decide to offer some accommodation. These situations must be rare exceptions because it only takes one dose of accommodation for the anxiety to grow. If you must offer accommodation, consider following these steps to reduce the negative impact:

  1. State clearly to your child this is an exception because of the unusual situation (e.g. your child is sick; your car broke down; etc.).
  2. If you can give partial accommodation, do so and encourage your child to use some M.A.P. tools such as a coping card or breathing to assist.
  3. Consider making a deal with your child that in exchange for the current accommodation your child will do 2, rather than the 1 exposures the following day, or that h/she will use another MAP tool to show anxiety s/he is still in charge despite the need for some accommodation.
  4. After the event and accommodation has passed, ask your child how s/he could handle it without accommodation if it happens again. Make a plan for the future.