Reflect for a moment: What’s your first instinct when you see your child experiencing anxious feelings? Do you want to find ways to solve the problem for them? Do you tell them to feel better? Do you feel your own panic start to swell?
One of the hardest things to do as a parent is watching your teen struggle. So, we often try to take away the anxiety-inducing situation or help them see that there’s nothing to be afraid of. But at some point, you start to wonder, “How much protection is too much? My teen can’t always blame it on his anxiety, and what if they never learn to manage their anxiety?”
Indeed, Dr. Eli Lebowitz, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine and creator of the SPACE (supportive parenting for anxious childhood emotions) intervention program, found that family accommodation is associated with more severe anxiety symptoms in teens and the teen’s ongoing reliance on the parents. Dr. Lebowitz’s SPACE program helps parents reduce parental accommodation while learning how to provide supportive responses to effectively help their children and adolescents with anxiety.
What is family accommodation?
Family accommodation is defined as parental behaviors aimed at helping a teen avoid the distress caused by their disorder. Parents may actively participate in their teen’s anxious symptoms or modify the family’s routine to avoid the teen’s anxiety. Accommodation takes different shapes ranging from parents answering reassurance-seeking questions (e.g., “Will I pass my test tomorrow?”) to allowing their teen to regularly avoid anxiety-inducing situations (e.g., providing excuses to get your teen out of an activity, letting your teen stay home, or answering questions for your teen). Accommodation can also be things parents don’t do, as when parents refrain from mentioning topics that might trigger anxiety, or avoid having guests over to their home because their child has social anxiety.
Our team had the pleasure of learning about the SPACE program directly from Dr. Lebowitz, and what we love about SPACE is that it focuses on changes parents can make to their own behavior without needing to make their teen change.
Essentially, the program aims to help parents replace their accommodations with supportive responses that help their teen foster healthy coping skills:
Part 1: Reduce family accommodations
Reflect on the following: during the past month...
How often did you reassure your child?
How often did you assist your child in avoiding things that might make him/her more anxious?
Have you avoided doing things, going places, or being with people because of your child's anxiety?
Have you modified your family routine because of your child's symptoms?
Have you modified your work schedule because of your child's anxiety?
If you answered yes to any of these questions*, you might be accommodating your child’s anxiety. That’s okay and perfectly normal.
Accommodations can be helpful if they’re allowing your teen to gradually improve their coping abilities. However, if the accommodations are about avoiding whatever triggers the anxiety, it can actually teach your teen implicitly that they are unable to cope with the anxiety.
Here’s an example of reducing an unhelpful accommodation:
Your teen is anxious about being left alone. You typically come home early from work or outings because of their anxiety. But by doing so, you may be reinforcing the idea that they can’t be alone and need someone to be with them.
To begin reducing the accommodation, the conversation may sound like, “I know you get anxious when I don’t come home exactly at 4pm, but I know you’re getting better at handling that. As your parent, it’s my job to help you get through difficult situations, and we are going to start practicing on you staying home alone longer. I’m going to start coming home 30 minutes later than usual once a week. How does that sound?”
Work with them through their concerns and identify useful coping strategies to face their anxiety. In the above example, this could mean the teen turns their attention elsewhere by:
Calling a friend
Watching a show
Taking a nap
Doing a grounding exercise
Journaling about their fear and challenging their anxious thoughts
Overtime, helping your teen regularly think through their coping strategies can make it easier for them to reach for a healthy coping strategy and build their capacity to problem solve in times of heightened emotions.
One note about reducing accommodations:
It’s okay to reduce accommodations one at a time to avoid overwhelming your teen. You might be surprised at how many accommodations you’ve developed over time to meet your teen’s anxiety!
Since one important aspect to implementing SPACE is your acceptance and validation of your teen’s anxious feelings. Reducing accommodations slowly will also prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by the changes and your child’s potential resistance to them.
Part 2: Supportive responses
As you work on reducing accommodations, you also want to practice providing more supportive responses. At its core, a supportive response focuses on showing acceptance by showing your teen that you understand how they’re feeling, and confidence by showing them that you know they will be able to get through it.
For instance, if your teen is anxious about wanting everyone to like them, you could say something like, “I know how anxious it makes you to meet new people because you want them to like you. It's perfectly normal to feel this way. But I know you can cope with those feelings. When I get nervous, I take a deep breath which helps me stay calm. Do you want to give that a try? ”
Supportive responses gradually reshape the parent-child relationship you have with your teen by no longer prioritizing protecting them but instead encouraging them to better cope with their own distress with physiological tools.
Ultimately, the SPACE program helps parents change their approach to parenting while giving their child the support and skills they need to cope with their anxiety.
While simple to learn, these skills can be hard to implement. Join a small, expert-led Parent Circle with other parents of anxious teens to learn more about SPACE and get mutual support.
To learn more about SPACE, you can also check out Dr. Lebowitz's newest book here.
*  Adapted from the FASA instrument to measure parental accommodations.