SPACE: A Counterintuitive Guide to Parenting Anxious and Troublesome Kids

Man lecturing his son at home, representing SPACE therapy

It is the natural instinct of a parent to shield their child from anxiety and danger.

However, psychologists are finding that too much parental intervention — speaking for socially nervous children, entertaining a child’s unique obsessive symptoms, and never leaving a child by themselves — is doing more harm than good.

Therapies like SPACE and Parent Management Training (PMT) help parents address their child’s anxious and troublesome behaviors without medicating them, and often without ever having to take them to see a counselor.

Here’s how they work:


Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE)

SPACE is a style of parenting that encourages children to face sources of anxiety on their own.

What makes SPACE therapy unique is that it is performed for the parent without their child present. In SPACE, parents are the ones being trained out of their habits.

It is about unlearning the impulse to intervene when their child feels anxious and training themselves to not accommodate their child’s anxious behavior.

However, this is not done in a harsh way. It is not leaving a child by themselves and telling them to “just get over it.”

Parents in SPACE therapy are trained to…

  • Acknowledge the anxiety the child is feeling and validate it (“I know this is scary…)

  • Affirm to the child that they are capable of handling this high anxiety situation (…but I believe you can do it.”).

  • Create practical ways to let them face anxiety on their own.

Say your child becomes anxious when talking to adults or other kids, and it is almost impossible for them to give presentations in front of their classmates.

Applying SPACE, a parent can…

  • Tell their child that talking to new people can be scary, but once you’re brave enough to start, you’ll start making great friends.

  • Emphasize to their child that everyone gets scared sometimes, but the more you face fear, the braver you get, and the more cool things you can do!

  • Quit the habit of always speaking for their child, and let the child express themselves on their own.

  • Start small. Even if their child can only speak a couple of words at first, they should be praised for it.

  • Let them order their own food at a restaurant. Encourage them to answer the teacher’s questions in class. Encourage them to go play games with kids on the playground.

  • If the child has a negative social experience, congratulate them on being brave enough to go talk to someone, and emphasize that that is what matters most.

  • Practice oral presentations with their kids, allowing them to get a feel for speaking in front of an audience. They could encourage their child not to skip this assignment, and instead see it as an opportunity to be brave.

SPACE as a guide for parenting has been shown to be highly effective, and many children eventually overcome their anxieties without ever having to set foot in a therapy office.

The creator of SPACE, Dr. Eli Lebowitz, said this about children overcoming their anxieties:

“Even though the children never met directly with the therapist and all the work was done through the parents, we found that SPACE was just as effective as CBT in treating childhood anxiety disorders.”


Parent Management Training (PMT)

PMT is another form of “parent-only” therapy for children that can be used to treat a variety of maladaptive behaviors that go beyond anxious fears.

PMT is one of the best evidenced-based approaches of all cognitive therapies. It has been shown to be effective for boys, girls, and across ethnic and racial backgrounds.

In PMT, parents learn to address disobedience, anger, defiance, disrespectfulness, unfounded aggression, manipulative behavior, and problems with authority.

If a child struggles with ADHD in particular, they are at a higher risk for developing what’s called Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

This can look like aggressive or overly rebellious behavior, often starting at a young age. Because of this, PMT is often recommended at the first sign of ADHD.

Parents learn to manage difficult children in a variety of ways, including…

  • Knowing normal behavior for their child’s age and finding the intention behind their child’s behaviors, (e.g., Are they acting out? Are they looking for attention? Are they trying to avoid a scary situation? Do they feel they are being treated unfairly?)

  • Acknowledging and rewarding their children when they behave well.

  • Following through with the rules they set and enforcing them consistently.

  • Enforcing consequences on their children when rewards are not enough to inspire better behavior.

  • Regulating their own emotions when their child starts misbehaving (They want to avoid angry outbursts that could further reinforce a child’s unwanted behavior.)

PMT is best for parents who want to take back authority over a child who has gotten out of hand, but it is also important to examine where the troublesome behavior stems from and to find ways to address underlying problems.


There Is No Ultimate Guide for Parenting, But We Know What Children Need Most

Children need positive interactions with their caregivers. Part of this means guiding them in a way that will benefit them most in the adult world.

The greatest gift a parent can give a child is the knowledge that they are strong enough to stand on their own; that they are capable of facing fears and conquering what troubles them.

In keeping a child sheltered from their fears, parents limit their child’s potential and block them from discovering all the wonderful things they are capable of.

This is why it is imperative that parents allow their children to develop self-esteem by dealing with things without help.

You can be there to catch them if they fall, but you don’t want to rob them of the profound meaning they find in overcoming what limits them.

It might be difficult to watch your child struggle, but you have to believe in them. You have to resist your instinct to help and trust your child so that they can learn to trust themselves.

Fearful and defiant behaviors will make life difficult for children as they get older, so the sooner they can be addressed by trained, conscious parents, the sooner children can begin to move in positive directions.