I was made aware of a program at the Yale Child Study Center last year and since hearing about it from a clinical colleague, it has come up around a dozen times. The program is called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) and was created by Dr. Eli Lebowitz. The premise is one that I believe is the key to helping anxious children work through their emotions so that they can overcome challenges that might be keeping them from participating fully in activities (including ones that might seem “easy” to others – like sleeping). SPACE works with parents of anxious children. The child never actually meets with the therapist! Parents are taught how to set limits and boundaries around their own behaviors.
Common Methods of Dealing with Childhood Anxiety
As parents, we often OVER-support and over-correct for our child when they are struggling – it’s natural to want to fix something when our child is having a hard time. In actuality, rather than helping, we are often giving our children the message that they are helpless or that they have REASON to be anxious. We’re reinforcing their worries.
This is one of the key factors that contributes to why I believe our campers are so successful at Akeela. Parents often ask us, “What’s your secret?”, “How did you get my child to do xyz?”. There are a few answers but many times, it has to do with the fact that we are not our campers’ parents. That means that we have a different relationship with the children in our care and we are more likely to be able to set boundaries with them when necessary and helpful. In other words, we can be objective. At home, when a child is struggling, they know that a caregiver will likely be able to help them. They may ask for that help before they really do the hard work of trying over and over to accomplish their goal. At camp, a counselor is also always nearby but a child may actually make more of an effort to solve a problem or try something difficult before they ask for help. And when they ask for help, a counselor at camp is more likely to support them and cheer them on as they insist that the camper do the work before they step in themselves.
Providing Independence to Help Manage Childhood Anxiety
Camp provides a safe space for children to challenge and push themselves. Without parents to quickly step in and “fix” or “smooth out” challenges, campers learn that they have the necessary skills to do the hard things in life. Just the decision to send a child away to camp is an indicator that a parent WANTS a child to gain these skills. Although not always easy, letting go as a parent sends a message to a camper that they have faith that the child has the skills necessary to be independent.
As you think about sending your child away to camp for the first time, try to challenge yourself to wait before stepping in to aid your child. Tell them you believe in them – that you believe they have the skills necessary to complete the task or work through the anxiety at hand. Many children are motivated by camp (or another upcoming event, trip or social opportunity) and parents can use that as a way to help children step out of their own anxiety. You can say something like, “I know this feels hard right now but I/we know you can work through it on your own. Going to camp means that you will be able to accomplish so much without our help and this a great opportunity for you to practice right now.”
As parents, we have to do our own hard work in order to help our children succeed to the best of their ability. We have to let go of our very natural instinct to want to protect, save and care for our children when they are having a hard time. Because, in the end, letting go and stepping away is the most helpful thing we can do.
For more information about SPACE, you can check out these links:
Ted Talk from Eli Lebowitz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExVvAn9hcjY
SPACE program website: https://www.spacetreatment.net/