How to respect feelings without empowering fears
When children feel anxious chronically, even the most well-meaning parents can fall into a cycle which is negative and can actually exacerbate the youngster’s anxiety. This can happen when parents, anticipating a child’s fears, try to protect her from them. Here are some pointers for helping your child escape the cycle of anxiety.
1. The goal is to help a child manage their anxiety not eliminate it.
No one wants to see a child unhappy, but the best way to help kids overcome their anxiety isn’t to try to remove the stressors that trigger it. It’s to help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even if they are anxious. And as a result of that, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.
2. Just because something makes a child anxious DO NOT AVOID IT.
Having a child avoid things which make them feel afraid, will in the short term make them feel better however it will reinforce the anxiety in the long term. If a child is in an uncomfortable situation and gets upset, starts to cry but not to be manipulative, but because that’s how she feels—and her parents take her out of there, or take away the thing she’s afraid of, she’s learned that way of coping, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.
3. Express realistic but positive expectations.
It is unrealistic to promise your child that she won’t fail her test or fall down when she is skating or have fun at a party or even that the kids at school will not laugh at her during her show & tell participation. You can however express confidence that she’s going to be okay, she will be able to manage it, and that, as she faces her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives her confidence and that your expectations are realistic and you will not ask her to do something she will not be able to handle.
4. Don’t empower her feelings, respect them.
It’s important to know that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. So if a child is terrified about going to the hospital because she has to have her tonsils removed, you don’t want to belittle her fears, but you don’t want to amplify them.You want be empathetic and listen, help her understand what she is feeling anxious about, and encourage her to feel that she can face her fears. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re frightened, and that’s okay, but 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 her feelings, but try not to ask leading questions— “Are you anxious about going to the hospital? Are you worried about the doing your speech?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about doing your speech?”
6. Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.
What you don’t want to do is be saying, with your body language or the tone of voice: “You know this is something that you should be afraid of.” Let’s say a child has had a negative experience with a piano recital. Next time she has to do her recital, you might be anxious about how she will respond, and you might unintentionally send a message that she should, indeed, be worried, frightened and anxious about it.
7. Encourage your child to tolerate her anxiety.
Tell your child that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what she needs or wants to do. To engage in life is really encouraging for her and to let her anxiety work itself through. This is called the “habituation curve”—it will diminish over time as she continues to have contact with the stressor. It might not get to zero or drop as quickly as you like, but that’s how she can get over her fears and how everyone does.
8. Do your best to keep the anticipatory period short.
The hardest time when we’re afraid of something is really before we do it. So for parents to really try to eliminate or reduce the anticipatory period is important to know. If a child is nervous about going to school, you don’t want to launch into a discussion about it two hours before she goes; that’s likely to get your child more keyed up and worried. So just try to shorten that period to a minimum.
9. Think things through with the child.
Sometimes it helps to walk through what would happen if a child’s fear came true—how would she handle it? A child who’s anxious about separating from her parents might worry about what would happen if they never came back. So talk about that. If your mom doesn’t come at the end of your hockey game, what would you do? “Well I would tell the coach my mom’s not here.” And what do you think the coach would do? “Well she would call my mom and he would wait with me.” A child who’s afraid that a stranger might be sent to pick her up can have a code word from her parents that anyone they sent would know. For some kids, having a plan can reduce the uncertainty in a effective, healthy, way and reduces the anxiety .
10. Handling your own anxiety well shows your child how it can be handled.
There are so many ways to handle your anxiety and if you can show your child how you cope with it can be very good for them. Kids are very perceptive and they watch and take in everything. Be mindful of how you show them how you handle your stress and anxiety and do not try to pretend that you do not have any stress in your life or anxiety. Everyone has anxiety and it is okay and in fact a good thing to let your child know you can handle your worries and fears ( some of them) in a positive way.