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When You Make a Child Feel Anxious, You Steal Their Ability to Think Rationally

Sometimes, as adults, we use unhealthy methods to change our children’s behavior. We mean well, but we focus more on immediate change than we do on long-term success. Instead of teaching kids skills to make independent choices, we teach them how to obey our demands.

More often than not, we use emotional manipulation to get the results that make our lives easier instead of the ones that make their lives more successful.

How many people do you know who try to make their kids feel guilty so they won’t make bad choices again? How many people do you know who bring attention to their children’s negatives choices in front of others? Do they shame their kids? Do they use harsh voice tones? Do they intentionally ask their children questions that will make them feel small and stupid?

Do you do these things?

Often, in our overwhelmed and overworked minds, we want to make kids feel less confident because we know they’ll dislike the feeling. We know they’ll dislike it so much, in fact, that they’ll work hard to avoid the feeling next time. In short, we teach kids to act in ways that we find acceptable by emotionally conditioning them to please us.

Here’s the thing about doing that.

When the change agent for a child’s behavior is fear of how they’ll be treated by a trusted adult if they don’t behave, the only thing we’ve taught them to do is how they behave around US. We haven’t given them any real tools on what to do around other adults, and we haven’t taught them a thing about intrinsic motivation. We haven’t taught them to be honest or kind or self-confident.

We’ve taught them how to please us. We’ve taught them how to control others. We’ve taught them to use human emotion for personal gain. We’ve also stolen the value in our own relationship with them.

We behave in ways that make our children feel anxious around us, and then we expect them to make rational decisions amidst their anxiety.

Do you know what happens when kids feel anxious? Or when any human being feels anxious? The prefrontal cortex of the brain (the part that controls decision making) tells the amygdala (the emergency response system) that the body is in danger. It puts all of the brain’s focus on getting the body to safety, which means that the ONLY part of the brain functioning is the fight/flight/freeze response.

The brain can’t answer commonplace questions. It can’t answer math facts. It can’t say yes or no. It can’t stay calm and respond in ways that are socially appropriate. It can’t clean up toys. It can’t obey.

It can only address the threat against them. Fight or flight or freeze.

When we talk to kids in ways that make them feel scared, we steal their ability to make rational decisions. And when we take the problem a step further by getting frustrated over their irrational response, we solidify the fact that nothing positive is going to come out of the interaction.

We don’t need to lecture kids until they feel small. We don’t need to set them up for failure by asking them questions they don’t know the answer to. We don’t need to point out their poor choices in front of other people. We don’t need to use a voice tone we’d be ashamed to use in front of other adults. We don’t need to yell, scream, push, move, or punish kids.

We can help kids learn to change their behavior without doing any of those things at all because kids are capable of chasing what feels nice instead of running from what feels bad.

It’s our job to encourage kids, lift them up, boost their confidence, and make them feel like they can learn to be independent. We don’t have to force them into independence before they’re ready, but we should be giving them hope that independence is possible. And independence can never be possible when we control every move our kids/students make. It definitely isn’t possible when we cause them so much anxiety that their brains shut down.

Change your words, change your voice tone, and change the number of kids that you impact in a positive way.

When You Make a Child Feel Anxious, You Steal Their Ability to Think Rationally

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). When You Make a Child Feel Anxious, You Steal Their Ability to Think Rationally. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Sep 2019
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