“I can’t do it!” whimpers a young child. “I know I am going to fail my test!” says another child, shaking and trembling at the thoughts of having to go to school. “No one likes me…no one! Everyone always laughs at me when I try to do something, so I don’t try to do anything,” sobs another child.
How might a parent handle children’s everyday fears and worries?
Then there are the children who bite their fingernails, struggle to speak above a whisper, hide their faces, turn away from others, pick at their skin or hair or eyebrows, chew on things, have nightmares, and in other ways show high levels of anxiety.
Many parents have seen this in even their very young children, and most parents feel some degree of helplessness plus a great deal of concern when their children seem anxious and stressed out. (Certainly, any child who experiences constant, high anxiety might benefit from being seen by a professional. The information shared here should not be seen as a substitute should that be needed.)
Some stress is normal and healthy for children to experience because it strengthens them. From those instances, they learn a variety of coping skills and come to believe that they can survive hardships and challenges. However, high levels of anxiety are a form of toxic stress that is unhealthy for a child at an emotional level, and neurobiologically, it can negatively impact the healthy developing architecture of their brain.
A friend recently shared an article from the web that offers some very good and practical advice for parents in helping them address some of their children’s anxieties in a healthy way: 13 Powerful Phrases Proven to Help an Anxious Child Calm Down .
Here is the list, and please go to the website if you want more information:
“I am here; you are safe.” Children can benefit from being reminded that they are not alone and that their parent is a source of safety. Parents may think it is unnecessary to regularly state this to their children and may assume that, of course, their children know that their parents are there, providing safety.
But there is something comforting about being reminded through actual words. After all, how often do we as adults appreciate when someone reminds us that they are right there beside us, providing safety and protection?
“Tell me about it.” Sometimes it isn’t wise to wait for children spontaneously to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns. Inviting them to share and then being an attuned, accepting listener allows the child the opportunity to put words to his or her thoughts and feelings. Just being able to share can reduce their level of intensity.
“How big is your worry?” It can help children appreciate that worries come in different shapes, sizes and intensities. To help them validate their experience, maybe they could describe or pick a spot on a continuum from 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 that identifies for them how strong the worry is.
“What do you want to tell your worry?” By making a child’s worry a kind of entity to whom they can talk to can empower the child. It can help them understand that sometimes we all have strong thoughts which can overtake us if we don’t stop and address them, or speak back to defend ourselves with healthier thoughts. “If anxious feelings were sitting here on a chair right across from us, what would you want to say to it?”
“Can you draw it?” Sometimes children are better at expressing themselves through drawings than through words. Giving children crayons or markers and inviting them to draw their worry is another way to move that worry from torturing them inside to coming into the light of day and being shared with someone else, which automatically reduces its strength.
Don’t over-analyze drawings or praise them using global terms like, “Oh that’s so wonderful!” Instead observe quietly and offer descriptive comments that invite a child to be reflective. “I see your worry is like a dark cloud that covers up the sun. It’s even bigger than the sun!”
“Let’s change the ending.” Much of confronting anxiety involves finding one’s power.
Inviting the child to imagine a different ending can promote a sense of increased power over that anxiety. “I’m wondering how the sun could get much bigger and stronger than your black cloud and maybe help the black cloud turn into a fluffy white cloud.” Or, “Let’s imagine you had some superpowers when you walked into your classroom and sat down. The superpowers happen when you take deep, slow breaths and invite your brain to light up inside so you can think clearly. Then imagine that you are able to answer the questions correctly and then imagine getting a good grade on the test.”
“What other things do you know about (fill in the blank)?” I remember helping a family many years ago who had a young child who was terrified that a bear was going to come into her bedroom and eat her up. There had been a story on the news about a bear walking around a nearby neighborhood that was the source of her anxiety.
In addition to recommending that she not be exposed to watching the news, it helped to show her stories online about the habits of bears and how they aren’t really interested in trying to get into people’s houses and children’s bedrooms. Bears were much more interested in finding trash cans outside of the house and running away if they hear people.
Knowledge is power and giving children information that helps to counter their anxieties, especially when it is in print on the Internet or in a book, can reduce some of that anxiety.
“Which calming strategy do you want to use?” At a time when a child is relatively calm, it can be empowering to invite the child to generate a list of the things that help him or her feel calm. This is a little like creating a safety plan with the child–helping her make a list of the things that can help her feel safe.
Calming techniques can include deep, belly breathing (Sesame Street has an excellent short video with Elmo demonstrating belly breathing. There are also many mindfulness techniques on the Internet that parents can encourage children to learn about.)
“I’m going to take a deep breath.” There is nothing like demonstrating what you are describing and helping children see that you can use the same kinds of coping techniques when you feel anxious.
“It’s scary AND…” You can add some empowering messages after acknowledging that something is frightening by reminding a child that he or she is strong, has strong people around who will protect him or her, and that he or she has handled scary moments before.
“I can’t wait to hear about…” While it can be helpful to invite a child to share his or her thoughts, feelings and experiences that explain his or her anxieties, there can be a time when shifting to non-anxiety experiences is a helpful option.
It is important to have first given a child ample opportunity to express those powerful thoughts and feelings around the anxiety. But then to say there are other things that can be talked about in addition to those anxious experiences can help them shift away from the anxiety. “Tell me about how many times you were able to kick the ball during soccer practice.” “When today did you feel like you were strong or were able to accomplish something you set out to do?”
“What do you need from me?” By asking a child to describe a specific way a parent might be helpful invites the child to move from the problem [of anxiety] to possible solutions.
“This feeling will pass.” As long as the child does not feel the parent is being dismissive, inviting him or her to understand that feelings are transitory can help to strengthen that child’s inner belief system so he or she can be more self-compassionate and self-nurturing.
These suggestions for helping children cope with anxieties can be helpful for parents as well! What are some of your coping strategies when you feel anxious? Think about ways you can share those strategies and model them to encourage your child to be more in control of anxious feelings.
Invitation to Reflect
- Do you remember being anxious when you were a child? What helped you cope with that anxiety? Which items on the list might have benefited you?
- Are you aware of times when your child feels anxious? How strong do you think those anxious feelings are?
- How prepared do you feel to respond in positive ways that empower your child when he or she is feeling anxious? Which one of the suggestions do you think might be helpful to your child?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network