SPACE Treatment: Helping your Child Overcome Anxious Emotions

By Allison Dickens, LPC

Parenting, at the best of times, is hard work.  Parenting a child who struggles with anxious emotions can feel confusing, scary, and frustrating for all involved.  Further, as parents it is easy to feel that you are failing your anxious child by not responding appropriately to their emotional distress.  Traditionally, therapy has been focused on helping your child learn tools to cope with these difficult emotions, understanding how to recognize triggers for these emotions, and react more appropriately to emotionally fraught situations.  However, what do you do when this is not enough, or if your child does not want to engage in therapy?

SPACE – Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions – is a new treatment method that is designed to help children feel less anxious.  While the child is the focus of the sessions, the parents are the ones participating in the sessions.  This model proposes that childhood anxiety is about the relationship between the child and parent.  Often, children do not have the language to communicate their anxiety to their parent, so they use alternative and sometimes inappropriate means of communication.  Crying, screaming, throwing a tantrum, and even shutting down are all ways that a child can communicate their anxiety. How the caregiver responds determines whether the child will continue to use that means of self-expression of anxiety.  SPACE treatment works with parents to change their own responses to their child’s anxiety.  The focus of SPACE is to help parents learn to communicate supportively to their anxious child while simultaneously reducing accommodations that would otherwise reinforce the anxiety.

Supportive Communication 

Upon hearing about the supportive communication component of SPACE, many parents wonder how this could be different from their current communication.  Parents often consider themselves very supportive, and this is usually true.  However, parent support usually comes in the form of either assisting the child in avoiding or reducing the anxiety, or insisting that the anxiety trigger is not as concerning as the child thinks, and sometimes insisting the child “get over it.”  This is natural – children look to their caregivers for reassurance and problem solving, and parents want to either get rid of or minimize these problems for their children.

We instead want to reinforce the fact that children can rely on themselves for soothing and anxiety reduction.  When parents remove all of the child’s anxiety, children do not have the opportunity to learn how to manage or decrease this anxiety on their own, and look to their caregivers every time they feel anxious.  SPACE helps parents learn to communicate supportively – acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, and simultaneously affirm that the child can cope with this on their own.  This results in the child developing confidence in managing these anxious feelings in the future.

Reducing Accommodation

When a child has a problem, the parent’s first response is usually to do something to solve that problem.  When it comes to anxious emotions, this can be anything from letting a child sleep in the parent’s bed due to fears of the dark, not going out in the evenings due to a child’s fear of having the parents gone for several hours, or even doing a child’s homework due to fear of getting the answers wrong.  Accommodations are actions the parent does – or does not do – because of the child’s anxiety.  These parent behaviors are usually a way for the parent to express love and protectiveness, but do not allow the child the learn how to manage these situations on their own.  These behaviors also often make unreasonable demands on the parent to limit these stressors, which can mean not leaving the house, not having certain people over, or spending time answering anxious questions.

SPACE asks parents to target specific accommodations to address, with the assistance of a trained SPACE providers.  Often, parents are asked to choose accommodations which significantly impact their lives.  For example, a parent of a child who is afraid of the dark may choose to target a nighttime ritual of checking in closets and under the bed for intruders.  In doing this, parents are asked to inform their child they will no longer be doing this, impress upon the child that they understand that this will be difficult but they know the child is capable of doing this on their own.  The SPACE provider and parents pre-plan possible interventions to different scenarios that might arise while eliminating accommodations. This supportive communication helps the child to develop the confidence needed to manage these anxious thoughts without the parent’s accommodations.

This is, of course, a process.  SPACE takes around 12 sessions or more to complete depending on the number of anxious behaviors identified, but oftentimes parents will report initial apprehension regarding taking on these anxiety-provoking situations.  SPACE providers support parents though every step of the process and ultimately teaches parents to celebrate successes. If your child struggles with anxiety, SPACE can be a tool to help regulate these difficult emotions and teach your child how face them head on.