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Parental Minding of Slippery Slopes

April 29, 2020
by Wendy Silverman

In Parents: How to Handle TMI, I focused on parental challenges in handling “too much information” (TMI). The struggle in handling TMI and noise can lead to additional difficulty in knowing how to comfort your child in a way that is reassuring while not inadvertently having parental comforting behavior become a slippery slope.

Most parental behaviors are meant to help alleviate child distress, perhaps more than ever during this time. But for some, certain behaviors can become a slippery slope—especially for anxious-prone parents and children. More than two decades ago I referred to this slippery slope as the Protection Trap. It’s a trap because although in the short term it allays both parent and child’s anxiety, it can morph into a dysfunctional, vicious cycle. The parental protecting behavior leads to child distress-reduction; child distress-reduction leads to parental distress-reduction; and so it goes.

Though these parental behaviors are well-intended, they can become a slippery slope over time. So, parents might benefit from being mindful about how they respond in certain situations, like sleeping and bedtime (e.g., allow the child to sleep in parents’ bed all night?), providing reassurance (e.g., how much is too much?), and social distancing sessions (e.g., allow a child with prior difficulties in interacting with others to skip family Zoom sessions?). There is no universal prescription—it varies across families. But it’s always important to express understanding and empathy to your child, and to acknowledge that these are difficult and unique times for all (you as the parent are having a hard time, too), and to let them know that you are always there to support them.

There are many slippery slopes, but there is one I want to note because it could become a ‘big one’ as this event is so totally unprecedented: the extensive and indeterminate school closure. For many children, especially those with earlier difficulties with anxiety, school was challenging and distress-provoking even before the pandemic. As tempting as the protection trap might be, it probably won’t be helpful down the road (slippery slope!) to do your child’s assigned school work, for example. Instead, be a coach and coping model.

We also don’t know how being away from school for such a long time might impact some children’s return once school reopens. There are questions we can’t yet answer, like how to ensure our kids that when they return to school, they won’t catch the virus. And it’s reasonable to think that for some children, school could become even harder once it reopens. This might seem far away, but it’s not too early to think about it. When schools prepare to reopen, it’s important for parents and school personnel to carefully consider how to plan for children’s return, especially for children with prior school-related distress.

Remember, before parents can help their kids, they need to help themselves with sound coping and wellness habits. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control are good places to begin for evidence-based guidance of how adults might take care of themselves.

Wendy K. Silverman, PhD, is the Alfred A. Messer Professor of Child Psychiatry and director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program in the Yale Child Study Center.

Submitted by Jill Max on April 29, 2020