THE BLOG
07/06/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2014

Terrified Tyrants

What do you think about when you think of an anxious kid?

Shy? Withdrawn? Avoidant? Meek?

How about controlling? Coercive? Even... a dictator?

Teachers, neighbors, and psychologists like me are usually surprised when parents describe an anxious child in these terms. But very often, parents do. Take Jemma, for example. Her 11-year-old daughter Grace developed a fear of insects that was strong enough to be called a phobia by her doctor. Grace avoided everything to do with bugs. From going on picnics to seeing movies like Antz or A Bug's Life.

But pretty soon it wasn't only Grace who was checking for bugs -- it was the whole family. Jemma would check Grace's bed and pillow for insects before she got into bed. Grace's father Dan would shake out her shoes each morning and spend at least 10 minutes "checking" the car before Grace would get in to go to school. Jemma was horrified at the amount of bug repellent they were buying.
"You know how some people use lots of Purell to stay clean? That's how Grace was with bug spray. Some days she would go through two or three bottles in one day!"

Jemma became concerned that so much bug spray would be unhealthy, so she tried telling Grace that she wouldn't buy anymore for a while.

"Grace went berserk! She threw the worst tantrum we'd ever seen. She yelled and cried and told us if we loved her we wouldn't do that to her. Of course I gave in. After that it just got worse and worse. Soon the whole family had to put on bug spray all the time or she wouldn't let us be near her. She demanded that we buy her a net canopy to hang over her bed. And then she told her younger brother that he couldn't open any windows in the house because bugs could get in. It seemed so crazy but we didn't know what else to do. We started reading about anxiety everywhere we could, through books and forums and websites -- like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org). We discovered that other parents were experiencing similar situations. And we learned that giving in to Grace's demands or providing family accommodation, as it is apparently called was actually likely to make her anxiety worse rather than better."

Zack's parents had a similar experience. Zack is 13. He has OCD and is terrified of becoming contaminated through poison in his food. His father Jerome explains more:

"When he first told us he thought there was poison in the food, we thought, 'Uh oh... that's it. He's totally paranoid.' But then we learned that a lot of kids with OCD have similar thoughts so we calmed down a lot. I was trying to help him one day, and I said, 'Here watch me, I'm eating this and I'm fine, see.' I thought that would be a good idea, but pretty soon he refused to eat anything unless I or someone else tasted it first. Than he wanted to watch the food being prepared. One day Zack announced that our silverware and dishes may not be safe and we need to only use paper dishes. We tried to rationalize with him but there was no talking him out of it."

When Zack "caught" his mom, Sharon, eating out of a ceramic bowl he went on a rampage and broke most of the dishes in the house. Jerome and Sharon were completely distraught.

"We really really wanted to empathize with how scared he was of being poisoned, but it was like living with a mad dictator. Every day he'd come up with some new whim or rule and if we didn't go along he'd have a meltdown. We tried to get him to talk about it with his therapist but Zack said his therapy was out of bounds for us and we didn't want to ruin that for him."

In the end, Zack and Sharon found their own therapist and started working toward reducing the family accommodation.

"The biggest step for us was having someone over for dinner. We were so embarrassed about how crazy meals had become in our home."

Having guests over actually turned out to be helpful as Zack was much less aggressive when guests were around.

"We would come up with a plan for some rule we were no longer going to follow, and then we would make sure to have someone else there to help us get through the tough part of dealing with his reactions."

Jerome, Sharon, Jemma, and Dan all agree that the hardest thing was saying no to things that they knew would help their kids in the short term.

"We would come up with a plan for some rule we were no longer going to follow, and then we would make sure to have someone else there to help us get through the tough part of dealing with his reactions."

"It was so obvious that she was suffering," says Dan. "It's not like she got up one morning and decided to take over the house. She was just paralyzed by her fear and swept us along with her."

As a clinician I've heard similar stories from many other parents. The most important thing I've learned is not to assume that any person's difficulties will fit the mold I've come to expect. I have a deeper respect for what children or parents are telling me about their lives than for what anyone else thinks they "should" be experiencing.

Visit the ADAA website for more information about childhood anxiety disorders, including podcasts with experts. Get tips for parents and caregivers.