In Consultation

In Consultation

Playing with Anxiety: Helping Young Children Face Scary Situations

By Lawrence Cohen

July/August 2017

Q: Parents of young, anxious children are often unsure of how to prepare them for a potentially upsetting event. Beyond empathizing with these parents, what tools can I give them to handle these situations?

A: I used to feel a bit helpless when parents asked me how they should tell young children—especially anxious ones—about an upcoming event that may difficult for them. Often attempts to prepare these children in advance for the event, such a doctor’s visit, just lead to prolonged agitation. But not preparing them runs the risk of delivering a shock that’s hard to recover from. Fortunately, a powerful session with a mother and daughter clarified the principles that would come to guide my approach.

Shoshana, the custodial parent of four-year-old Becca, was in the early stages of a contentious separation from her husband, following years of tension in which their different parenting styles were a continual source of conflict. Shoshana had agreed to overnight visits for Becca, but came to me for help because whenever she told Becca about an upcoming visit, Becca would start showing signs of anxiety, becoming clingy at home with her mother and hoarding toys at school, later saying she was just borrowing them.

Before our first session, I asked Shoshana if she and Becca talked openly about the difficulties with clinging and “borrowing” toys. If they hadn’t, I’d have suggested that Shoshana gently broach the topic as…

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