Children and teens look to their parents, teachers and trusted adults for information about the world around them, enabling them to reach expected milestones and mature into adulthood. However, for some children and teens, knowledge is insufficient; they also want reassurance and comfort that feared outcomes will not occur. Furthermore, they're dissatisfied with simple reassurances, such as "You've studied enough. You'll do fine," and seem to need unending examples, promises, and guarantees. This is called reassurance seeking.
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"Are you sure you locked all the doors? When exactly? Even the back door? What about the upstairs windows?"
"Tell me again that it can't make me sick! Please. Just once more."
"Did you wash your hands before you cooked dinner? How many pumps?"
Calling mom or dad over and over again on the phone from school to make sure they are okay, and when they do not pick up, sending text messages instead.
Asking parents to check homework repeatedly to make sure its perfect.
Reviewing and re-reviewing with friends how the conversation went to ensure no mistakes were made.
Most parents already know that giving reassurance over and over again is not only exhausting but also doesn't work. Reassurance provision is like pouring water through a net; the water simply leaks out and you are left with an empty container. Obviously pouring more water in is not the solution, but what is? Anxiety experts have determined 2 methods that can work for many families: 1) the all-at-once method; and 2) the gradual method.
This method is also known as the "cold turkey" route. This works best for reassurance seeking that has not been occurring for long or only occurs in a few small areas. You can explain to your child that his or her anxiety bully is bossing him/her around and growing stronger by making your child gather an unending supply of reassurance, only to demand more the next day, and the next, and so on. Your child is being held hostage. Explain that you feel confident you can work together to reduce anxiety’s power by eliminating reassurance once and for all. You might say:
"I know this is hard for you, but I don't want to feed your anxiety and help it grow. I'm open to ideas to support you or help you face this but from now on when you ask me _____ I will not answer that question."
This method works best for reassurance that has been a longstanding problem and occurs in more than one area, or for youth that find the idea of a "cold turkey" approach too hard. You and your child can use the Facing My Fears format to gradually roll back reassurance in a step-by-step, planned and predictable way.
Explain to your child that his or her anxiety bully is bossing him/her around but that you feel confident you can work together to create a multi-phase plan to get rid of reassurance. Starting with Phase 1, you can agree to give only 1 item of reassurance per situation or daily (you decide). But after a few days you need to move to Phase 2 of the Facing My Fears plan, which would be no reassurance at all. Each time a situation occurs and your child asks for reassurance, or seeks it out from other sources, you or the other adult (e.g. a teacher or coach) can offer one of these examples:
"You already know the answer to that question. I am not going to answer that."
"It sounds like your anxiety is acting up. What could you do to boss it back? Could you try some relaxed breathing? Are there any helpful thoughts that you can tell yourself?"
"What do you think? How could you handle that?"
Once your child is comfortable at this level, you will then move to the final phase. This is where you generate some anxiety by creating doubt in your child. For example, your child asks, “Are you sure I can't get sick from touching that door knob?" and you respond, "I don't know. May be you will. May be you won't." Your child may become upset at first but remind him/her that s/he has many tools in the My Anxiety Plan (MAP) to help him cope. Other examples of what to say include:
"Perhaps you won’t be able to fall asleep at Cali’s house. What would you do if that happened?"
"Some people don’t get accepted into college. Some people do. Life is full of surprises."
"You might fail. But you might not. There is no crystal ball."
When you first stop giving reassurance, your child or teen will probably be very anxious. In fact, he or she might become very angry or frustrated and even throw a temper tantrum. This is normal. It is important that if you have decided NOT to give reassurance, that you stick with it! Children and teens often get very angry when they do not get the reassurance that they have come to expect. If you keep at it, and stick to the plan, your child will stop seeking reassurance from you and start managing anxiety in more healthy ways. During this early phase it is important that you give your child as much attention and support as possible in other ways. This can help your child when s/he must tolerate your refusal to provide reassurance when the anxiety peaks. It can also help you to feel more confident about what you are doing, if you can recall the fun you had with your child earlier that day when later on s/he is name calling what an awful dad you are for not answering a simple question.
To maximize success consider these guidelines:
Identify the 4-Ws: What, When, Where, and Who. Be clear with your child about which fear and related reassurance you are targeting; when you will target it; where; and with which people. For example, "Megan, we have agreed that I will not answer any of your questions about getting sick (what) after school and in the evenings (when), at home (where), and this includes your dad and I, as well as your sisters (who)." Mum and Megan may decide that it is too high up on her Fear plan to tackle this reassurance out in the community, and for those situations, a single reassurance statement will be provided. Once she is doing well at home, then they will tackle community reassurances.
Get everyone on board: If you plan to stop giving reassurance to your child, it is important that everyone in your child's life agrees. If your child can simply get reassurance from someone else, this strategy will not work.
Make sure your child or teen understands and agrees with the plan: When he or she is calm (not experiencing anxiety), explain what the plan is, and why you are doing it. Include him/her in designing a My Fear Plan, if needed.
Be consistent: If you give in to your child's demand for reassurance even once, your child has learned a powerful lesson: "If I persist and ask enough, I'll get the reassurance I want." This will strengthen the reassurance seeking. Be strong- stick to the plan!
Use rewards: It can be hard for your child or teen to tolerate a reduction and eventual elimination of reassurance, so providing your child or teen with some extra motivation can help. Review the Rewarding Bravery tool for more ideas.
About the author
Anxiety Canada promotes awareness of anxiety disorders and increases access to proven resources. Visit www.anxietycanada.com.