It is typical for kids to have worries and to ask their parents questions about those worries. For example, it is not uncommon for a child to worry about a natural disaster befalling their town after learning about one on the news. It’s also typical and appropriate for a child to then ask their parents about the likelihood of a similar disaster occurring in their own hometown. However, some children are not satisfied by having their question answered once or twice.

Worry drives these children to ask the same or similar questions over and over in an effort to feel less nervous or more in control of the situation. This is called reassurance seeking and it can come in many flavors, from “are you sure you locked the door? Did you double check? What if the lock didn’t work?” to “I don’t think I studied enough for this test. Do you think I studied enough?” to “What if I get sick at school? Will you pick me up? Are you sure you’ll pick me up? What if your car breaks down on your way to pick me up?” As this final example illustrates, worry is an insatiable bully and reassurance seeking questions often take on a life of their own, jumping from worry to worry.

When your child seeks and is given reassurance, they learn that the best way to handle their worries is to have a parent tell them they will be okay or that nothing bad will happen.

Reassuring your worried child is the most natural thing in the world to most parents. However, as you may have already noticed with your child–the feeling of reassurance does not last for long and soon your child is at it again, asking the same questions or about a new, related worry. Additionally, over time kids tend to need more and more reassurance to feel soothed. Providing reassurance to a child’s worry questions leads to a vicious cycle in which their worries are calmed in the short run, but are exacerbated and strengthened in the long run.

This occurs for several reasons. First, when your child seeks and is given reassurance, they learn that the best way to handle their worries is to have a parent tell them they will be okay or that nothing bad will happen. Though this might briefly make your child feel better, in the long run they do not get the chance to learn that they can face fears and handle their worries independently and without parent support. They also do not get the chance to learn that if they ride the worry wave it will eventually go down on its own.

Providing constant reassurance can make parents feel like hostages to their child’s worry and can be crazy making for parents and siblings alike! Read on for some strategies to help your child face their worry bully head-on and break the reassurance seeking cycle.

Make a Bravery Plan

Notice who, when, where, and why your child seeks reassurance. Does it occur with a particular care taker? Around specific situations like school or times of day like bedtime? Is it more common when your child is not feeling well? Once you have gathered data on the times your child is most likely to seek reassurance, you can sit down with your child and make a plan.

Explain to them that when you answer their reassurance seeking questions, you are paying attention to the worry bully and making it stronger. You can help them notice how over time, they ask more and more worry questions and that when you answer the questions it only helps for a little while. Make a plan together (see below for ideas!) to slowly reduce the reassurance you give. It is critical that other family members, friends, or teachers who the child might go to for reassurance know about the plan as well. If someone continues to provide reassurance, your child will learn to just go to them to get the reassurance their anxiety craves.

Before beginning each new phase of the bravery plan, introduce it to your child so they know what to expect.

  • First, if your child asks a reassurance seeking question you can respond “that sounds like the worry bully talking. Is that the worry bully talking?” to give them a chance to reflect and notice if they really need to ask the question again.
  • Second, once your child has gotten used to identifying the worry bully, respond to reassurance seeking questions with a question or statement like “I think you know the answer to that already,” “What would you do if that did happen?,” and “It sounds like the worry bully is trying to push you around. What do you want to do to push back?”
  • Finally, once your child has learned to tolerate not receiving an answer to their reassurance seeking questions, you can give them a special hand signal such as the “a okay” gesture or a peace sign to indicate that you heard their question, but are not going to answer it. Eventually transition to ignoring the reassurance seeking questions altogether.

Give your child lots of specific labeled praise each time they tolerate not receiving reassurance. For example, you might say “great work being brave when I did not answer your worry question about getting sick.”

Be Prepared

Most children’s anxiety will actually increase in the short term as parents reduce reassurance.  This increased anxiety might look like tears, anger, tantrums, pleading for reassurance, or asking more and more reassurance seeking questions. Sometimes parents worry that these behaviors mean the plan is not working. In fact, although these behaviors are not pleasant to deal with, their presence actually means the plan is working–anxiety is being starved of the reassurance it craves and so is pulling out all of the stops to try to get it.

It is very important that you stick with the reassurance seeking plan even when your child is upset. This is because if you provide reassurance at the height of a tantrum, the child quickly learns that escalating is the most effective way of getting reassurance! They also learn that if they just keep trying, they will eventually get reassurance. Make a plan ahead of time for yourself and/or with your partner for how you will ride out the urge to give in and reassure your child. You might have a planned line such as “I know you are really upset and this is hard. I am not going to talk to the worry bully right now, but please let me know if you would like to do something else together.” By sticking to your reassurance seeking plan, over time your child will become more able to manage their own anxiety and your family will be freed from the worry bully tyrant.

When to Seek Help

If your child’s worrying is so intense that it begins to impact their functioning or causes them significant distress, you should consult with a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for children.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

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