Some parents will try anything to stop a child’s fussiness or crying. These parents are often responding to their own anxiety more than the child’s urgent situation and real need.
Infants, of course, should be looked after immediately when they cry because there probably is an urgent need. But over time, it’s best to allow the child to start handling his or her own anxiety without rushing in with a quick fix.
One of the most important skills in dealing with life challenges is learning to handle one’s own discomfort in the face of anxiety. If children are given sweets or drinks whenever they are fussy, they are encouraged to use their emotions to manipulate others to get something. They are also prevented from learning to soothe themselves when they feel anxious.
They are being trained to use food or drink to soothe their anxiety. People who as children have always been distracted by food or drink when they’re upset have been neurologically hard wired to seek food, drink or attention the moment they feel anxious.
People learn to deal with apprehension and unfamiliar circumstances in early childhood. Anxiety is simply a physical state of increased attentiveness in the face of an unknown situation. Anything new or unknown in life provokes some anxiety. So if children don’t learn to deal with anxiety without having to consume something, they may end up consuming a lot more than is healthy for them.
When your child is fussy, and not in danger, pain, or real need, you should remain relaxed and calm. Actually, it’s usually helpful to remain calm. Having the demeanor of a good pilot or nurse, the parent’s attitude should be one that conveys to the child “Don’t worry, everything will be okay. You’ll figure it out. Be patient and you’ll be fine.”
This is not to say that parents shouldn’t respond to their children’s real needs. But they should not rush to the rescue with cream-puffs and root beer as a way to deal with the child’s discomfort. The more children experience new situations without reaching for a pacifier or cookie, the more confident they will feel in the face of challenges in the future. This means that it’s important for parents to learn to deal with their anxiety as well.
Research shows that those who are able to defer gratification are much more successful in life. Check out The Marshmallow Experiment.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD