Kids don’t generally develop anxiety disorders all on their own. Oh sure, genes and biology have some influence, but these factors largely just predispose kids in the direction of acquiring problems with anxiety. The wrong messages can push both anxiously disposed kids as well as otherwise normal kids in the direction of struggling with anxiety for the rest of their lives.
If you’re a parent or someone who cares about kids, you just might want to know what type of messages instill insecurity. I’ll start by laying out three common mistakes that parents make; in other words, the kinds of messages you “don’t” want to give them:
- Invalidating or Denying Your Children’s Feelings. If your kids seem worried, fearful, upset, or distraught, sometimes it’s tempting to tell them “there’s no reason that they should feel that way” or even that they “shouldn’t” be feeling what they are obviously feeling. Parents give these messages because they don’t want their kids to feel distress. So, they reason that their kids will understand, if their bad feelings have no real basis, they won’t feel the way they do. Big mistake. Children need to hear that it’s normal and OK to have a little fear or distress sometimes.
- Providing Incessant Reassurance. Messages that “everything will turn out OK” sound so very much like what you should tell kids, and if you don’t say them too often, there’ll probably be no problem. However, when you frequently reassure your kids, you end up giving them the message that they need to turn to you (as an adult or parent) to help them see that things will turn out alright. They fail to learn that they can get through fear on their own. We wrote about this issue in detail in our earlier book, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies and if you find yourself reassuring your kids a lot, we urge you to read it.
- Protecting Your Kids from All Harm. No one ever wants to see a child come into harm’s way. However, growing, developing and learning require kids to face challenges and even take a few small risks along the way. Parents that try to constantly clear all dangers and risks that their kids confront teach them that the world is a scary place and that they need their parents to guide them through it. That message hardly fosters the independence and maturity they’ll need as adolescents and young adults.
So what’s a parent to do instead? One of the best ways to help prevent kids from developing anxiety disorders is to model how to cope.
I recommend that parents express when they’re feeling anxious and tell their kids how they plan to cope with it. For example, you might say, “Sometimes I feel nervous when I have to climb a ladder, but I just need to take a deep breath, be careful, and do it. If I get too nervous, I can always climb back down, but it feels good to get through difficult tasks.” Another good strategy is for parents to praise their kids when they make efforts to do things that are a little anxiety arousing for them.
The bottom line: Gently encourage your kids to confront their fears, let them know that a little anxiety is normal, and don’t try to keep them away from all challenges and risks.
Photo by Juliakoz, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.