Respond well, rather than react to their anxieties
Many children are born to worry. The environment they live in may contribute, but worry and anxiousness is in their nature.
As a parent of a worrier, and also a born worrier myself, my recent work with Dr. Jodi Richardson to create our Parenting Anxious Kids course has had an added dimension. It’s been personal.
Fortunately, my young worrier’s anxieties didn’t prevent her from participating in sport, learning and social activities inside or outside school. She did spend a lot of time fretting and catastrophising about how little everyday things would pan out, almost to the point of making herself sick at times.
She was a micro-manager who always made sure she had every angle covered in an unfamiliar situation. If she was to be picked up from a friend’s birthday party she’d generally have a back-up plan in case a parent didn’t arrive on time. ‘Being prepared for every contingency’ was one of her main strategies to help her manage her anxieties.
If you are a Type A worrier yourself then you’ll understand your child’s anxieties. The default reaction in this case is to react sympathetically rather than with empathy towards your child’s worries.
However if you are the easy-going-she’ll-be-right-on-the-day type of personality then it may be hard for you to fathom what all the fuss is about. An attitude of “why worry?” is difficult for an anxious child to swallow. The default reaction is often to ignore your child or let them know they should just get on with things.
Neither reaction is what an anxious child should hear. The research that formed the basis of our Parenting Anxious Kids course revealed that parents who respond rather than react to children’s anxious moments are far more effective at helping kids manage their anxiousness in the moment.
Responsive parents and teachers
There’s no doubt that anxious children and young people need careful, sensitive handling from families and teachers alike. They also benefit from parents and teachers who respond to their needs rather than simply react to their anxieties. When we are in react mode we become anxious and worried ourselves, such is the contagious nature of anxiety.
Here are three great ways to respond, rather than react, to children’s anxieties:
1. Draw your child’s attention to the triggers
Many children and young people don’t know when they are anxious. Over time help children understand the sorts of incidents and scenarios that lead to their anxiety so that they learn to recognise their anxiety triggers. Encourage kids to stand back and notice their feelings, thinking and reactions to events. When they understand their anxiety they can manage it. When they don’t, they feel overwhelmed and consumed by it.
2. Validate their feeling
Empathise, rather than sympathise with your child’s feelings of anxiety. “Ah, I get it. You’re worried about that test tomorrow. That’s understandable.” There is nothing better than being understood by a trusted adult when you are genuinely worried about something. You don’t have to wallow in it with them, nor should you brush it aside. Letting your child know that you ‘get it’ is a huge relief when they are overcome by worry.
3. Remind them to breathe
In the moment of anxiety most kids forget to breathe. Their shoulders tense up and their breath tightens, which is fight-flight response to stress at play (we teach this in our Parenting Anxious Kids course). Deep breathing dissipates the fight-flight response and alleviates those awful feelings that come with anxiousness. When your child is stressed remind him or her to breathe. “Let’s take 3 deep breaths together.” I recommend that your kids practise deep breathing when they aren’t stressed so it comes naturally to them when they are overwhelmed.
It’s not that worriers and naturally anxious kids can’t function well. They generally over-function as they come to grips with their anxieties. But anxious kids can be unhappy kids and can also hard to live with. They can also make difficult partners and friends as adults. This makes childhood the perfect time for parents and teachers to give natural born worriers some tools and strategies to help them live their life in full colour both now and, importantly, in the future.