Defining excessive reassurance behaviour
Reassurance seeking is defined as any explicit, implicit, verbal, or nonverbal behaviour where one seeks assurance from another individual, even if it has already been provided (Gillett & Mazza, 2018).
Excessive reassurance behaviour as a part of normal development
It is natural to seek some reassurance when confronted with uncertainty, lack of predictability and structure. Reassurance can come in the way of external reassurance or internal reassurance. External reassurance involves relying on others for feedback to calm a doubt, allay a worry, solidify a plan of action, or guide a decision. Internal reassurance involves relying on oneself by going inside and drawing comfort from one’s own resources (Landes, 2018). Everyone uses a combination of external and internal reassurance skills to handle situations effectively.
Excessive reassurance behaviour of concern
For some children they seek external reassurances so many times that it becomes excessive.
It is important to note that ERS behaviour exists for a variety of reasons, and is particularly prominent in people with anxiety disorder, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Hypochondriasis (excessively worrying about having a serious illness) and depression.
Impact of excessive reassurance behaviour
When a child begins to persistently exhibit ERS behaviour, the climate of the context (e.g. childcare, early childhood, primary and secondary school, disability support and youth services) can change dramatically. A considerable amount of time and energy can be spent on the child showing the ERS behaviour, which can have a deleterious effect on the quality of the learning experience for all the children. Research consistently shows that managing behaviour is linked to staff experiencing high levels of stress, burnout and job dissatisfaction.
Jenny initially asked her teacher at the beginning of the day, ‘Is Mum going to pick me up at 3pm?’ When her teacher would say ‘Yes,’ Jenny would ask, ‘How do you know?’ When her teacher would answer the question, Jenny would appear to calm down; however, over time, the need for external reassurance worsened until Jenny was asking these questions several times throughout the day. The degree of her questioning also increased to a series of questions like, ‘Is Mum going to pick me up at 3pm? How do you know? What if there’s a traffic jam? What will happen if Mum gets here at 3:30pm? Will you leave if my mum isn’t here?’ It seemed as if the more questions the teacher answered, the more questions Jenny had. Jenny now asks these questions constantly, and the teacher can almost see that Jenny isn’t listening to the answers but thinking of the next question.
The example highlights how the need for external reassurance can become a never-ending cycle. Providing the external reassurance only relieves the child’s fear, worry and unease momentarily, but as soon as the external reassurance ends, the anxiety returns. This happens because when the child feels anxious (e.g. What if mum doesn’t come to pick me up?), they seek safety through reassurance, which makes them feel better. This bolsters their belief that if they hadn’t sought reassurance from an adult immediately, their anxiety may have increased, and the feared consequence may have happened. Thus, the ERS behaviour is reinforced, which can snowball into the child requiring more and more reassurance over time.
Hence, ERS affects everyone involved and the child who is seeking reassurance requires necessary help to learn positive ways of behaving and managing their emotions.
Positive behaviour support resources for excessive reassurance behaviour
Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the underlying causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.
PBS recognises that there is no single cause for ERS behaviour. It is a complex behaviour that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.
ERS behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem. Behaviour Help resources are at hand.