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Parent Fears and "Interviewing for Pain"

My youngest has life threatening food allergies which (fingers crossed) he may be outgrowing. However, after several really serious anaphylactic reactions, I began to transfer some of my stress onto him through anxious parenting. I inadvertently upped his anxiety because I was "interviewing for pain".

This phrase, coined by Michael J. Thompson, describes the unconscious way in which parents can emphasize and thus elicit, negative information and responses from their children.

For example, he would walk by and if I saw redness on his face, I would stop him and ask:

  • Can you breathe?

  • Does your stomach hurt?

  • Are you itchy?

  • And so on.

A better question would have been - how are you feeling? Then I could have listened to what he said without making every interaction - well, about things going wrong. (I hope this goes without saying but if a child is clearly having an allergic reaction - those questions are 100% appropriate. I'm only talking about times we *worry* there's an issue.)

I have heard that parents who've experienced serious illness in children or loss of a child sometimes slip into these patterns. But it's not just us, parenting is a high anxiety endeavor in the United States and this has only been heightened through the pandemic. I am hearing more "interviewing for pain" including:

  • You sneezed - do you have a fever?

  • Is your mask stuffing up your nose? Is it bothering you?

  • Did you learn anything, at all, at school today (note - kids often say no. They're not good judges of their own learning).

  • Was the homework too hard?

  • Was the homework too easy?

  • It's so hot, do you feel dizzy? (this was me - I admit it!)

You can see that these questions (like mine above) are leading. They presuppose a problem and hint at the desired answer. They crank up everyone's anxiety - especially the child's - and are rooted in fears which are not always rational. I suspect we're doing this more often simply because of the anxiety we've built up over the past 15 months.

So, when you check in with your children at the end of school or camp, consider whether you are interviewing for pain. Try to discern if you are simply worried or if there's actually a problem. I like the advice of Rachel Gabriel, who says she "pause[s] at anxious moments with my daughter and asks... How would I parent if I were not afraid? That is, if I knew that despite whatever was happening, she would turn out just fine, what would I say and do?"

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Why Gretchen Rubin- - - Why it's a Bad Idea to Interview for Pain

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