Children's relationship anxiety PDF Print E-mail



Infants and young children are dependant on their parents for their very survival and are therefore born with the ability to engage in a relationship with a caregiver. It’s not surprising, then, that children are sensitive to threats to the relationship, and can become very anxious about it. The relationship between parent and child is described as an attachment relationship, in which the parent (the attachment figure) provides a “safe haven” and “secure base” for the child. The child needs to be sure that the parent will be available and responsive when he needs comfort, nurturance or protection. Equally, the child needs to know that the parent will provide encouragement and support when she sets out to explore the world.

Very early on, the child is highly tuned to his parent’s reactions to him in terms of her facial expressions, tone of voice, physical touch and other nonverbal communications. (While I am using the female pronoun here, all of these points apply equally to male parents). The child senses when the parent isn’t responding enthusiastically, when she is preoccupied and not giving the child her full attention, or when she is angry. These reactions make him anxious because they signal possible breaks in the relationship and therefore threaten his wellbeing, even his survival. He will make all sorts of attempts to engage her if she is withdrawn, or appease her if she is angry.

Carly is five years old and her mum, Susan, complains that Carly is very demanding of her attention and flies into a rage when Susan doesn’t provide it. Susan tries hard to be patient but finds herself wanting to withdraw from Carly because she feels resentful of Carly’s demands. There are a number of things that may have made Carly anxious about her relationship with her mother. First, Carly’s temperament is naturally a bit highly strung – she doesn’t take to change easily, she is difficult to soothe, and is quite emotionally intense. This can result in Susan feeling understandably frustrated or irritable with Carly at times, which Carly may sense as a rupture in their relationship. Second, Susan suffered with postnatal depression for about 8 months after Carly was born, making her feel tired and a bit emotionally withdrawn from those around her. Carly would have sensed that her mother was not always available or responsive to her needs. Third, Oscar’s (Carly’s 2-year old brother) arrival will have posed a threat to Carly’s relationship with Susan, reducing her time with the older child. Again, Carly will have sensed some reduction in her mother’s attentiveness. Fourth, Carly has recently started school which means that she has to separate from her mother for fairly long periods of time while Oscar gets to stay with mum all day. This may be perceived by Carly as another danger sign for their relationship.

In order to reduce Carly’s relationship anxiety, Susan can set up regular doses of “mummy medicine” – short, concentrated bursts of undivided attention – for Carly. In these daily play session of fifteen to twenty minutes, Susan needs to let Carly take the lead, and to become the an attentive follower, not directing or instructing Carly, but simply watching and describing what she is doing in a warm and interested way. She will give Carly the message that she accepts her unconditionally, that she finds her interesting and valuable, and that she feels positive towards her. When she is reminded of this, Carly will be less anxious about her mother’s ability to ensure her survival and love her. This will stand her in good stead as she sets out to build relationships with her peers. In the next article we will talk about social anxiety.