September 26, 2019

Good enough is sometimes good enough when it comes to anxious children.

Childhood anxiety is on the rise. A constant companion of this tormentor is childhood indecisiveness, which has become more prevalent in recent years. Options available to kids were narrower for past generations, but the pattern of child versus parent decisions has flipped. For example, more flexible parenting approaches allow children to choose things that used to be parent-dictated, like bedtime and what to have for dinner. 

On the other hand, more kid-centered choices, like how to spend free time, who to play with, and what hobbies to pursue, are decided by parents. In addition to too many choices, children face academic, social, and sports performance expectations at a higher level earlier in their lives, which increases stress and pressure to "be the best."

Anxiety can cloud rational, confident thinking. Stressed kids become paralyzed about decision making, even when it comes to more trivial things like choosing a breakfast cereal, a bedtime book, or what shirt to wear. Parental emotions may fan the flame. The burden of choice can impede the flow of schedules and make mornings and evenings a nightmare for families. Parents are advised to be mindful of their own stress and anxiety as they guide their children’s confidence in managing decisions. Remember, the important thing is not what is selected, instead it is to help the child to be able to make an independent choice. Children can learn this lesson.

Be Firm

Many children are afraid of making a mistake they regret later. By encouraging a growth mindset, a concept developed by professor of psychology at Stanford University Carol Dweck, children can learn that mistakes are helpful in making a better choice next time. Teach children that taking too much time to decide takes time away from enjoying a good-enough choice.

Essential things like bedtime and household rules should be set down by parents. However, children should be able to make some meaningful choices, too. Clearly define what Mom will be choosing and what Junior can decide; then stick to it. If there is too much drama at mealtime, either expect the child to eat what is served or make a menu with two options; then be consistent. Give the child a reasonable amount of time to decide then say "either you make a decision, or I will make it for you, and you can choose next time." A drama storm is not a reason to back down; be firm.

In situations where there are multiple choices like in a restaurant or toy store, help children narrow down options. These can be teachable moments. Parents must be mindful of their own anxiety or impatience and breathe deeply. Then remind the child about a good-enough choice and enjoying whatever decision is made (gratitude). Calm the child by validating how difficult it can be to make a selection, then tell him that happiness and contentment can come in many ways. Send the message that it's what one makes of a decision that matters.

Parents may assess whether they have been overly controlling, over-anxious about their child's disappointments/challenges, or too hung up on perfectionism (of self and child). Anxious parents may inadvertently question the child's choice or bring too much emotional energy to a decision. 

Be willing to step aside and allow your child to make some (not all) choices. Who cares if her clothes don't match; if she made an independent decision, acknowledge it. Assess whether the child is overscheduled and does not have a chance to organize some of their free time. Also, be aware that children feel secure when parents are firm and set clear limits.

A child's ability to make decisions is a sign of independence and self-esteem. Parents may encourage both of these attributes in many ways such as acceptance, encouragements, and allowing reasonable choices.

Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a licensed developmental psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years, and is the author of Nola Family’s award-winning “Learning Years” column.

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