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The problem with reassurance

How to break the cycle of reassurance

Parents of anxious children know that giving reassurance over and over again can be draining and that it seems to only work for a shorter and shorter time. The more you give reassurance, the more you’ll have to keep giving it as the child becomes dependent on the reassurance to become calm. Perhaps more importantly, giving reassurance serves to keeps your child’s anxiety alive, because it maintains the problem in the long-term. Giving your child reassurance also conveys to them that there’s actual danger that he or she needs to be protected from, when it is in fact the anxiety that is driving the reassurance seeking. A better way comes from Anxiety Canada:

Step 1: Make a Clear Plan

  1. What specific behaviours are you trying to change? (e.g., “Whenever my child asks me if the house is clean, I will no longer give reassurance that it is”, or “I do not want my child to call me at work several times every day to make sure I am okay”)
  2. Is everyone in the family on board? If you plan to stop giving reassurance to your child, it is important that everyone else in the family agrees. If your child can simply get reassurance from someone else, this strategy will not work. 3. 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

Step 2: Following Through on the Plan

  1. Once you have explained the new plan to your child or teen, you need to follow through on it. There are several things you can say to your child when he or she comes to you for reassurance. Here are some examples: “You already know the answer to that question. I am not going to answer that.” “What if you didn’t do your homework perfectly -- what would happen?”
  2. Active ignoring involves deliberately ignoring the question and not paying attention to your child’s demands. However, once he or she stops asking for reassurance, give him or her lots of praise and attention. Return to not giving your child attention or reassurance if he or she starts asking you questions again. This strategy quickly teaches your child that reassurance will not be rewarded or answered by you, and that it is more beneficial not to repeatedly ask the same questions.

Step 3: Give lots of praise!

  1. Because this is hard work, make sure to repeatedly praise your child for any efforts made to not seek reassurance from you, or attempts to manage anxiety independently. Some positive comments you can make are: “You are doing such a great job!”
  2. What to expect… 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.
  3. THE GOLDEN RULE: CONSISTENCY!
    Sometimes parents will say they tried to stop giving reassurance, but it didn’t work, and that their child or teen simply kept asking for reassurance. This usually happens when you have given in once or twice and gave reassurance. Many parents will slip back to old habits and give reassurance if their child has a bad temper tantrum, cries, or delays a task that needs to get done (a common one is wanting reassurance before going to school in the morning).

If you want more information on how to stop the vicious cycle of reassurance there is a tip sheet available with more information (https://anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/Reassurance_Seeking.pdf ) or make an appointment with your paediatrician or general practitioner to get a referral to see a clinical psychologist with experience in managing childhood anxiety.