Does your child ask a lot of questions? Do these questions sound like this:
Are you sure it’s going to be okay? What if I don’t know anyone? Did you lock the door? I did okay, right? Do you love me? What time did we need to leave again?
If these questions sound similar to what you experience your child might be reassurance seeking. Reassurance seeking involves a child asking family, friends or teachers repetitive and frequent questions in order to help reduce anxiety or discomfort. This is a common behavior among children who may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. When this behavior starts, it feels only natural to answer these questions. As parents, we want to reduce or shield our children from suffering, but often times if we continuously answer these questions, it makes it very difficult for children to learn make these connections for themselves and self-soothe.
So what do we do?
First, we need to distinguish reassurance seeking from information seeking. We do not want to stifle our kids' curiosity if they're asking questions to seek new information for the sake of learning or information seeking. The table below will help.
Asks a question once
Repeatedly asks the same question
Asks a question to be informed
Asks questions to feel less anxious
Accepts the answer provided
Responds to the answer by challenging the answerer, arguing or insisting that the answer be repeated or rephrased
Asks people who are qualified to answer the question
Often asks people who are unqualified to answer the question
Asks questions that are answerable
Often asks questions that are unanswerable
Seeks the truth
Seeks a desired answer
Accepts relative, qualified or uncertain answers when appropriate
Insists on absolute, definitive answers whether appropriate or not
Pursues only the information necessary to form a conclusion or make a decision
Indefinitely pursues information without ever forming a conclusion or making a decision
Okay, now what?
It is important that we allow our children to gain independence and problem solving skills when they are in distressing situations. Now that we know how to distinguish between information seeking and reassurance seeking, here are some phrases that can be helpful if your child is reassurance seeking.
When your child comes to you for reassurance, you can try responding with “What do you think?” in order to give your child the opportunity to answer the question themselves. When you give them the chance do this this for themselves they will begin to learn that in many situations they can independently problem solve you may see a decline in there seeking reassurance. Other options include asking, “Have I already answered that?”, saying “Maybe, maybe not”, or simply pointing out that they are seeking reassurance and therefore it would not be helpful for you to answer.
It is important that you communicate with your child about why you are no longer giving this reassurance so she can be prepared and understand this is coming from a supportive place. If your child does not understand or receive this implementation well, you could start a token system. Give your child a certain number of tokens at the beginning of each day. Each time she seeks reassurance from you, take one token away. Explain to her that if she can resist asking these questions and have most or all tokens by the end of the day, she will receive a reward such as picking out what is for dinner, a prize from the prize box or alone time with mom or dad.
What if this doesn’t work?
If you try implementing the token system as well as attempt to cut back on giving reassurance and your child is still struggling, it may be time to seek out a mental health professional. Generalized Anxiety is a common mental health disorder and is also very treatable. From my experience as a mental health professional, I have found that all parents of the children that I see just want to comfort their child and make everything okay for them.
Unfortunately, for those with anxiety, the things we do to try and comfort our children, such as giving reassurance, can work against us and can sometimes be a difficult thing to stop. A professional that specializes in treatment of anxiety can help give you and your child the support you need while making this transition and learning new techniques. When looking for a provider online, search for key words such as “anxiety” and “cognitive behavioral therapy.” This will help narrow down those that can help with this specific issue.
Angela Johnson is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in anxiety disorders at North Shore Center in Mequon.