The Stepladder Approach to helping with anxiety

When anxiety is beyond ‘being a little bit shy and awkward’ and develops instead into something unreasonably fearful, there are steps we as a parent can take in order to help our children conquer some of these moments and allow them to more fully immerse themselves in all the world has to offer. The stepladder approach or ‘gradual exposure’ is a technique to help people of all ages slowly learn to conquer their fears and tackle situations they would previously have perceived as overwhelming.

It is based on the principals of exposing ourselves to the fearful situations, but by doing so in a way that allows us to achieve small successes in order to move ourselves up the ladder to full exposure.

As a parent it is important when using this technique that you continue to praise each step conquered and offer rewards for continued encouragement. The great thing about this technique is that it can be used on children of all ages and certainly for adults as well.

Why choose this technique?

  •  Children learn the skills they need to face future challenging situations
  •  Children are able to face their fears and realise that many of these fears are actually unfounded
  • They get used to facing fears rather than doing everything they can to avoid certain situations.
  • They are rewarded with a great sense of achievement as they are able to conquer each rung on the ladder.

A practical example of the stepladder approach for social anxiety

A child who has social anxiety and refuses to interact with others for fear of making a fool of themselves or doing or saying something embarrassing may benefit from the following example:

1.    Put them in a social situation and see if they can say hello to one person they already know.
When that is conquered….

2.    Move on to a person they don’t know…..then…

3.    Say hello to an adult such as the lady in the bakery or the supermarket….then…

4.    Think of someone who may share a similar interest to them and start up a conversation about that topic.

This can all seem relatively straight forward, but it can still be very challenging for some, so it is important not to get angry when one step is not completed but rather encourage your child to keep trying until that step is conquered.

A practical example of the stepladder approach for separation anxiety

Another example may be to help a child with separation anxiety. Some children literally will not let their mums out of their sight for fear of them leaving.  To help with this you can:

1.  Start by asking your child to stay and play in their bedroom for 15 minutes whilst you do something in another room ….then…

2.  Ask your child to continue playing inside or watch TV whilst you hang out the washing….then…

3.  Have them stay at home with dad whilst mum goes shopping for an hour…….then….

4.   Get them to stay at home with an aunty or grandparent whilst mum and dad go out together

Obviously these steps or rungs on the ladder can all be adapted to your child’s situation, to their age and to what is developmentally appropriate.  Again this can be done without making too much of a fuss, but simply putting the challenges out there, rewarding and encouraging when they succeed, trying again when they don’t and slowly but surely moving up the ladder to more challenging exposures.

Accompany with Positive self-talk

As a parent it is so important to try and be a good role model for challenging situations. Let them see how you cope with challenges or fears and let them hear the positive way you can talk through these experiences.

Self talk is the internal or external dialogue we have with ourselves as we approach a certain situation.  An example of negative self-talk may be something like “I will never be able to swim that far”, whilst an example of positve self-talk would be something like “I  know this is further than I have swam before but there is no reason I wont be able to do it”.   These words  are very powerful in determining how we think and feel about certain situations and subsequently how we act and behave.

For younger children you may like to give them some simple sentences to say to themselves when they feel fear coming on, such as , “I know mummy will be back soon”. For older kids and for adults, we can begin to rely on more advanced self-talk  so that they start to question the validity of their fears. As we get older we should start to challenge ourselves with such statements as “What happened to me last time?”, “What is the likelihood of this happening?” and “what is the worst thing that can happen?”.

So whilst a little anxiety is normal and even healthy,  when this anxiety becomes a deep fear and worry that begins to interfere with  the lives of our children, then we must take the necessary steps to help challenge these fears and conquer the anxiety.

Have you had a child that suffers from a more serious form of anxiety that has benefited from a technique such as this?  Or could this be something you could adapt to your child’s particular situation?

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. kirri

    A valauble strategy that can be employed in a multitude of situations and something I use with clients and myself to face fears. Strangely I have never used this appproach with my own children and yet I can see just how useful it would be, particularly with one of my twins. Thanks Martine!

    1. Martine

      Thanks Kirri, since starting this blog I too have come across many situations that can be adapted to my own family that previously I had only thought of as a professional strategy.

  2. Fiona T

    This is great. As a teacher and Mum I am well aware of building up confidence and resilience in our kids. These strategies are so practical too. We often forget that we have to teach our children ‘how to be’ in the world, often through our own actions, such as modeling and positive talk as you have outlined. I will be directing friends to this blog, thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Martine

      Thanks Fiona, and yes being a good role model is one of the most powerful ways we can help our kids, but not something many of us pay enough attention to.

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