How to lovingly detach from our child’s OCD and anxiety
As a parent, one of the most difficult things we may go through is watching our kids struggle. For children with anxiety and/or OCD, the temptation to rescue and reassure them through their uncertainties can be strong and difficult to withstand. We know how difficult anxiety and OCD can be to live with, so the idea of detaching from our children’s symptoms is understandably difficult and may even feel cold at times. However, we ultimately want our children to be able to learn and understand that they can tolerate uncertainty and discomfort and that compulsions are not only unnecessary, but actually escalate anxiety. In order to do this, we must do our best to not get involved in their reassurance-seeking behavior so we can reinforce the message that reassurance is not needed.In order to work toward a loving detachment from your child’s OCD and anxiety, it is important to remember that detaching doesn’t mean that you don’t care; it is not equivalent to ignoring your child altogether. When your child was a toddler, you probably learned early on that if you gave in to temper tantrums, you only reinforced the idea that a tantrum would lead to a desired outcome. So, as difficult as it may have been, you likely learned that you had to ignore the tantrum in order to teach your toddler how to cope with difficult feelings. As a result, your toddler learned how to deal with disappointment and the frustration of not getting their way. It didn’t mean that you ignored your toddler. You likely still made sure they were safe and gently reinforced your expectations. Eventually, your toddler learned to cope with unwanted feelings and the tantrums faded, but your toddler did not receive the message that you didn’t care.
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The same can be true when you see your child actively becoming anxious or engaging in compulsive behavior. Disengaging and detaching from the reassurance-seeking behavior doesn’t mean that you don’t care and doesn’t have to involve completely ignoring your child. Just as you once reminded them that throwing a tantrum would not help them get what they want, you can also remind them now that seeking reassurance will only continue to make their anxiety and compulsive behavior worse. You can empathize with their discomfort without reassuring them or rescuing them, knowing that you are helping them work toward being able to tolerate uncertainty more effectively and without the need to engage in a compulsion.
Another step to help you lovingly detach from your child’s OCD and anxiety is to separate empathy from reassurance. For example, when your child with social anxiety is questioning whether or not they are accepted by their peers or questioning how others perceive them, you can still offer empathy without reassuring. Empathy may sound like “making friends can be difficult. It’s impossible to know for sure what other people think about you, so dwelling on it doesn’t seem to be very helpful. But, I understand that it’s natural to feel curious about it sometimes.” Unhelpful reassurance may sound like “of COURSE they like you! Why wouldn’t they??” The former response is detaching from the anxiety enough that you are not giving in to reassurance, while the latter response is feeding reassurance and ultimately reinforcing the anxiety regarding others’ acceptance. The latter statement may be more tempting, and may provide more comfort to your child. However, the next time they become anxious regarding others’ perception of them, they are going to search for that same relieving reassurance instead of learning to tolerate that uncertainty and then let it go.
For your child who obsesses over safety, empathy may sound like, “I can tell that you are really worried we forgot to lock the door and that this is hard on you. We are not going to turn around and check. Let’s talk about the fun we’re going to have at the birthday party”, while unhelpful reassurance might be, “I promised I locked the door, I remember specifically locking it. Do you want to call the neighbors to check for us?” With the former statement, you are not completely ignoring your child’s struggles, you’re just choosing not to become emotionally involved in order to eliminate the struggle. It is important to remember that each time you choose to eliminate your child’s anxiety, you only reinforce the idea that anxiety and uncertainty is something that your child cannot learn how to cope with. Our children look to us as an example of how to respond to the world. Detaching from the anxiety and OCD will help set the example for your child that the thing they are worried about/obsessing over is not a true threat. If they can accept that it is not a true threat, it will become easier for them to accept the uncertainty that they are currently attempting to alleviate.As parents, keeping our own emotions in check will be an essential part of lovingly detaching. When your child comes to you worried that he gave a presentation at school and another student may have been laughing, do you find yourself becoming defensive for your child and wanting to protect him? How will this influence your response? If your response is full of anger and disgust, what message will you be sending your child regarding how much emphasis he should place on others’ perception of him? Even though being a parent inevitably involves becoming emotionally involved in virtually every aspect of your child’s life, we have to keep in mind how our emotions may inadvertently feed anxiety and OCD. If you want your child to be able to dismiss the uncertainty of what other kids may think of him, you have to also accept that same uncertainty with a sense of neutrality; we won’t ever know for sure whether or not another student was laughing at his expense, so what can we do with that uncertainty? We set the example of how to accept that we don’t know for sure, empathize that it is difficult to present in front of others, and then choose to move on to something else without ruminating over it. Essentially, you, as the parent, are setting that example of remaining grounded and calm in the face of uncertainty.
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This leads us to our final suggestion of how to lovingly detach from your child’s OCD and anxiety: the art of redirection. Your child will need help and guidance as they learn to break the cycle of rumination and compulsive behaviors. Redirection provides a more effective alternative to the temptation to reassure. Can you start a conversation about something else? Can you remind them about upcoming activities/plans? Although it is important for your child to feel some degree of anxiety and discomfort associated with uncertainty in order to accept difficult feelings and learn to tolerate them, it is also important to help provide them with a skill that will keep them from ruminating. Learning to tolerate and accept a difficult feeling does not have to equal suffering, and teaching them to redirect and do something else will not only help your child, but it will also help you to detach from the anxiety.
As parents, we know the importance of communicating to our children that we believe in them. The same is true while they are learning to cope with uncertainty and uncomfortable emotions. They can tolerate these emotions without being rescued. If we want our child to believe that this is possible, we have to actually demonstrate that we believe it is possible. So, we must choose to consistently show that the thing the are worried about… we are not worried about it. We communicate this by detaching from their anxiety and compulsions. We love them and are not abandoning them or leaving them, but we are not engaging with the anxiety and OCD. Just like when they were toddlers and their brains eventually learned to cope with not getting their way, their brains are capable of learning to cope with and dismiss uncertainty without becoming so distressed. When our children look to us for reassurance, it may be so tempting to provide that reassurance just to see their anxiety begin to alleviate. However, what message are we sending them when we do this? That reassurance-seeking is the answer whenever they become anxious or uncertain in the future? That we support and agree with seeking reassurance as an appropriate response? In order to break this debilitating cycle, we must instead communicate that whatever uncertainty they are experiencing can be tolerated and that when we all stop feeding it, it will inevitably begin to shrink and dissipate. A loving detachment will help with this process.
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Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapist, MA
I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.