by Karen van Voorst, Remedial Therapist
How to respect feelings without empowering fears
As a result of the fast-paced world in which we live today, more and more children are becoming victims of stress and anxiety. When children are chronically anxious, even the best and well-meaning parents can fall into a negative cycle and, not wanting a child to suffer, sometimes even exacerbates the child’s anxiety. Parents might anticipate a child’s fears and then try to protect him/her from it.
1. The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it.
Sometimes the best way to help children overcome anxiety isn’t to eliminate the stressors that triggered it. It might be more helpful to rather give them support and teach them ways to manage their anxiety and still function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious. In doing so, the anxiety might either decrease or completely fall away over time.
2. Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious.
Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it can reinforce the anxiety in the long run. If a child is in an uncomfortable situation, he/she might get upset; start to cry—not to be manipulative, but just because that’s how he/she feels at that present time. Parents might then react by whisking him/her out of it or removing the thing which he/she is afraid of. Sadly children might start to accept it as a coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself more than you as the parent would like it to.
3. Express positive—but realistic—expectations.
Anxiety is real to children and it doesn’t always help to talk things “down”. Saying that the things that they are afraid of won’t happen, e.g. “You won’t fail a test”; “You will have fun ice skating” might have the opposite effect than what you intended, if it turns out that they failed that test. Instead, rather express your confidence in your child and say things like “It will all be OK! You will be able to manage it.” Also mentioning that, as he/she faces his/her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives him/her confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask him/her to do something that he/she can’t handle.
4. Respect their feelings, but don’t empower them.
It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. So if a child is terrified of going to the doctor because he/she is due for a checkup, you don’t want to belittle his/her fears, but you also don’t want to amplify them. You want to listen and be empathetic, help him/her understand what he/she is anxious about, and encourage him/her to feel that he/she can face their fears. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay. Remember that I’m here and I’m going to help you get through this.”
5. Don’t ask leading questions.
Encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings, but try not to ask leading questions— “Are you anxious about the big test? Are you worried about the science fair?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about the science fair?”
6. Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.
What you don’t want to do is to say, in a tone of voice or with peculiar body language: “Maybe this is something that you should be afraid of.” Let’s say a child has had a negative experience with a dog. Next time he/she is around a dog, you might be anxious about how he/she will respond, and you might unintentionally send a message that he/she should, indeed, be worried.
7. Encourage the child to tolerate her anxiety.
Let your child know that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what he/she wants or needs to do. It’s really encouraging him/her to engage in life and to let the anxiety take its natural curve. We call it the “habituation curve”—it will drop over time as she/he continues to have contact with the stressor. It might not drop to zero, it might not drop as quickly as you would like, but that’s how we get over our fears.
8. Try to keep the anticipatory period short.
When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time is really before we do it. So another rule of thumb for parents is to really try to eliminate or reduce the anticipatory period. If a child is nervous about going to a doctor’s appointment, you don’t want to launch into a discussion about it two hours before you go; that’s likely to get your child more keyed up. So just try to keep that period to a minimum.
9. Think things through with the child.
Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if a child’s fear came true—how would he/she handle it? A child who suffers from separation anxiety might worry about what would happen if a parent didn’t come to pick him/her up. So we talk about that. “If I don’t come at the end of soccer practice, what would you do?” “Well, I would tell the coach you are not here yet.” “And what do you think the coach would do? “Well, he would call you. Or he would wait with me.” A child who’s afraid that a stranger might be sent to pick him/her up can have a code word that anyone they sent would know. For some children, having a plan can reduce the uncertainty in a healthy, effective way.
10. Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety.
There are multiple ways you can help children handle anxiety by letting them see how you cope with anxiety yourself. Children are very perceptive, and they’re going to assimilate that anxiety if they keep hearing it in your conversations with others. I’m not saying you should pretend that you don’t have stress and anxiety, but let children hear and/or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, feeling good about getting through it.
11. Channel their energy into their hobbies or things they are fond of.
If the situation lends itself to this, you could possibly try to help children to rather channel their energy into art, dance, sport, singing, or a recreational activity which they really enjoy. This might help as a short term solution.
12. Put humour and laughter back into their lives.
Life can be far too serious at times and the best thing to do, to take the “edge off” stressful situations, is to try and see the humour in it. Laughter helps us to relax, it is good for the soul and it helps us see the bright side of things. It gives us breathing space! This will not always work, but a little humour can help us to take life less seriously or to see things in a different light.
13. Taking deep breaths to help them calm themselves down.
This can work well for older children. All children have vivid imaginations that can be put to good use. Ask them to close their eyes and to imagine that they are in their favourite holiday spot, doing their favourite activities and with their favourite people. Help them to control their breathing by instructing them to breathe in slowly and deeply through their noses, holding their breath for up to five seconds, and then breathe out slowly through their mouths.