Anxious Child?

The worry begins as a trickle in your son’s (or daughter’s) mind. It develops momentum and drops into his body causing his palms to sweat, heart to race, and tummy to ache. Finally, your child’s worry erupts:

“Mommy, what if I have a new teacher in school?”

“Daddy, what if I can’t find someone to play with?”

The words hit you. You, too, begin to worry both vicariously for him and about your ability to quell the worry. No matter what your past experience, you give it your best shot.

You try reassurance: “Honey, everything is going to be OK, I promise.”

You invoke logic: “It wasn’t so bad last time, remember? That means this time it will be even easier.”

You lend strength: “You’re strong and brave. You have it in you to do this. I believe in you.”

You teach coping skills: “Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing will really help.”

The result? Your child still worries.

And you? You begin to feel exasperated, exhausted, helpless, and perhaps even hopeless.

If this is how you feel as the parent or caretaker of an anxious child, you are not alone. Do not give up hope, do not give up trying–you can and will find a way to reach your child.

Instead of focusing on the end goal of reducing the anxiety, begin with a powerful baby step. Build an empathetic connection with your child.

Note: If you’re feeling tired or even angry as a result of your recent experiences trying to help an anxious child, please do this before using any of the techniques below. Take out a sheet of paper and write down three of your child’s greatest strengths. Think of three examples where your child recently used his or her strengths. Keep this paper with you.

Next time your child comes to you feeling anxious, adopt one of these strategies:

  1. Use the Fast-Food Rule

This simple rule was developed by author Harvey Karp. Karp reminds us that when we go to a fast food restaurant and order something through the drive through (e.g., “Can I have a burger and fries please?”) they always repeat back the order (e.g., “So you’d like a burger and fries, correct?”). Repeating back to children what they are saying makes them feel heard and respected. What’s more is it builds an immediate connection.

Before you kick into problem-solving mode with an anxious child, repeat back to her with complete sincerity what she is expressing to you. Master this technique to validate her feelings and help her feel understood.

  1. Tell a story about yourself

When your child comes to you with a worry (however irrational it may seem), close your eyes and draw out a past experience or feeling of your own that resembles what he is going through. When you open your eyes, say these three words: “I get it.” Then tell him your story and why you understand what he is feeling.

  1. Be the calm you want to see in your child

Make a decision that you are going to respond to your child instead of reacting to her. A powerful way to respond is by listening intently and silently. After she is done explaining her worry (even if the explanation comes in the form of screaming), maintain your silence.

When the time is right, you can say, “I hear you, and I’m here for you.” You can then invite your son or daughter into your silence by holding hands, hugging, or leaning in. Children are very intuitive and can mimic the energy you exude. Do not underestimate the ripple effect these micromoments of calm can have on your child’s well-being. In silence, you can deliberately cultivate a contagion of peace.

  1. Remix the coping skill

When you feel your child is receptive to learning a coping skill, remix the ordinary into something fun. Instead of deep breathing, for example, maybe your child wants to try breathing like Darth Vader. If your child is young, perhaps he wants to take in a deep breath and blow out birthday candles.

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