Some 15 million Americans suffer from social anxiety. The statistics in most developed countries are not any better. Typical onset is at age 13, but generalized childhood anxiety often appears first.
When you have a child who is experiencing this level of anxiety, a few issues enter your marriage:
Who's fault is it? As the level of anxiety increases and the child finds it more and more difficult to go to school, husband and wife may enter a cycle where they blame each other for the difficulties their child is experiencing. Some of these accusations are listed below:
"You're too lenient." Often, the more frustrated spouse may think that the family is experiencing a parenting issue and they will blame the more lenient spouse as being responsible for these developments. The medical profession will often support this accusation. Imagine when the child psychiatrist, social worker or even your family physician speaks down to you with the following comment: "Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, your child is obviously manipulating you. You must be strict. Everyone suffers from anxiety. Even I have my moments. Be tough, remove any rewards until your child is complying with societal rules."
You can imagine after being told off by the expert that whichever parent is considered the more lenient one is going to get an earful of verbal abuse from their partner. They will be accused of lack of control, siding with the child against the other parent, not really caring for their child, damaging their child's socialization and probably continuing the dysfunctional parenting style of "the sick patterns you grew up with."
Perhaps the 'stronger' parent will just bulldoze their child into school. For some children, that will work. But for other children, the symptoms will get worse. Results depend upon why your child is anxious and their individual temperament and thought pattern. But the tension created between the 'lenient' and the 'strict' parents will add tremendous strain to the marriage and likely worsen the child's overall anxiety. A vicious circle indeed.
Additional strain will develop as the stricter parent is considered 'evil' in the eyes of the child. If the mother is the stricter disciplinarian, her desire to be seen as the warm, comforting parent may generate even greater anger on her part towards her husband. Likewise, her attraction to her husband may plummet as he behaves in too 'soft' a manner with their child.
Guilt over genes. Very often the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. If a parent has struggled with anxiety, the odds increase that their children will face similar challenges. Nature versus nurture is still debated; there is the genetic contribution and learned anxiety from living with a parent who is anxious. If one spouse suggests that they can see from the state of their child that they made a faulty mate selection, the very foundation of the marriage is being shaken. They will enter into a highly destructive pattern of mutual recrimination and guilt. Nothing good will come from this. When you selected your partner, you thought their positive traits outshone their negative ones. In any event, you now have a choice. You can decide that you will not have any more children together. But, for now, your distressed child needs your help. Any added strain in the house will only make matters worse.
Fear of meds. Medicating a child may be necessary. But the social stigma may trigger one's own fears. Some parents will not medicate. Or, they may worry about media reports saying that antidepressants may be linked to an increase in thoughts of suicide. Talk about scary. One's attempt to help your child cope may further aggravate their situation. Speak to the physician. Get a second opinion. Make informed decisions. Together.
Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat the symptoms of social anxiety. Whether it is sufficient depends on the causes of the anxiety. Some people will be reluctant to send their child for therapeutic help. However, there is much less stigma today associated with therapy than there used to be.
Every child is different and has their unique personality and circumstances. There are also cases where abuse or other factors may complicate matters. Listen to your child. They need to be comfortable sharing with you. Prioritize the needs of your child.
Various forms of abuse can also trigger issues in a child. Speak with the school to find out if there is any bullying. If you suspect abuse within the family, you must also act. There are unfortunately, parents who are aware of abuse, such as sexual abuse, but tolerate it due to their own needs or fears. As a parent, you have a responsibility to do your best to raise your children in a safe and loving environment. If you are challenged in this regard, please seek help immediately.
At the end of the day your marriage is precious, to you AND your child. So, what can you do together to help each other to cope? The first piece of advice is to stop trying to ascribe blame to each other. We all have our issues. As always, you need to work together. Focusing on blame removes the focus from or where it belongs: helping your child successfully manage their anxiety.
Make your love for your spouse known to them. And of course, make sure your child knows that he or she is very loved by both of you. Stop blaming and stop making your child feel like a freak. You have an issue as a family. Every family has something.
Love your child. Love each other, with positive, supportive actions and kind, encouraging words. If there are stressors in the home that are making your child feel insecure, work on them. Find a professional if that would help. Deal positively with the school. Look for resources to help your child; many of them are free. Above all, be patient! Your child has a precious soul. Encourage it, don't squash it.
Feeling powerless as a parent is very difficult. Feeling divided with your spouse is equally challenging. With loving effort over time, you should see positive results.
Be a loving family.
Informative and helpful resources are available through the following links:
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
For the situational anxiety that plagues many children every year in August and September, check out my post, How to Handle Back-to-School Anxiety.