As parents, our main aim is to protect and keep our children safe.
Therefore, it can be painfully difficult to watch your child struggle with anxiety, and can send our own brains into a defensive Fight and Flight response.
If your child suffers with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to remain calm and positive when confronting their emotions which, I know, is easier said than done.
Our primal brain’s response to danger is to block out our Neo-Cortexes, our Thinking Brain, where logic and words reside. Because of this even the most well-meaning parents can utter words that, instead of alleviating anxious feelings, lead to statements that unknowingly dismiss them.
As parents we often believe that to support our children we should ‘fix’ their struggles, that we are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. However, in doing so, we are removing important life lessons necessary to develop the skills they need to thrive into today’s society.
Our goal as parents should be to help the child to recognise their emotions and learn to cope with the feelings, not to try to remove all potential triggers of anxiety from the child’s life. The way that we respond to their anxious thoughts and behaviours will set them up for either successful coping or increased anxiety as they grow into adulthood.
With that in mind, here are 10 phrases to avoid when your child verbalises anxious thoughts and feelings, or engages in anxious behaviours:
This is a typical response when we want to remove the worries quickly and so we tell the child not to think about them. This statement implies that their worries are not important. Your child is already worried and therefore needs to be able to address them.
Try using “Can you tell me more about your worries?”
When our primal brain responds to danger or fear, it alerts our fight and flight response. This raises our heart rate and breathing, and can make us feel nauseous and hot. This, especially to a small child, does not feel fine!
Reassure your child using the words “I am here to help you.”
Different children have different anxieties bringing with them different fears:
Younger children may fear separation, new changes, what hides under the bed…
Older children may fear failure, making mistakes, peer judgment and rejection…
Anxiety doesn’t disappear with a quick reply. You need to help ease the fears by opening up communication.
Open the door to a conversation: “Let’s talk about that together.”
Whatever size their worries are, they are a big deal and can have an enormous affect on their school performance, family relationships and friendships.
Instead of slamming the door shut to any hope of communication try this: “I can see that you are feeling very anxious, deep breathing helps us to calm our brain down. Let’s try that together and then we can talk about how to help your feelings.”
5. “You just need to sleep more!”
A popular comment to teenagers!
Sleep can be difficult for any age. We all know that when the busyness of the day slows down, our worried mind tends to speed up. Creating a calm night-time routine, less screen time, a chance to talk about the worries of the day, a meditation app for some, a warm bath for others, all help our brains relax.
Anxious children often want to confront their worries and be more independent, but their anxious thoughts often get in the way using avoidance techniques and excuses. This can lead parents back down the path of “fixing” and “doing”. This doesn’t help in building the coping skills in resilience, self-esteem and confidence, which are important to learn as they grow older. Prevent yourself from jumping in at every moment:
Use this positive phrase to help work through an anxious moment: “I know you feel anxious but I know you can do this. I am here to support you.”
The speed in which children take to make decisions can, at the best of times, be exasperating. Anxiety can highlight this. Some are perfectionists and fear failing or making mistakes. Others don’t feel they are worthy enough and may suffer from feelings of helplessness. Instead of impatience and jumping in to speed decisions up:
Use a simple question “How can I help?”
Our monkey minds are there to protect us, to remind ourselves of dangerous situations and to ask the “what if?” questions. However, our primal brains cannot tell the difference between real danger and pretend. Whilst this was important when being chased by sabre-toothed tigers thousands of years ago, it is not helpful when needing to ask or answer a question in class.
Your child would love to stop thinking their anxious thoughts, but once the anxious thought cycle has begun, catastrophising as the neural pathways become stronger, it is very difficult to interrupt without proper supports in place. Sitting down and talking about how the anxious thought began to take shape helps to take control of the thought.
Try using “Let us calm our Monkey Mind down by telling it positive things. What would happen “if” …?
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly experienced mental illnesses and children are no exception. Roughly one in eight have an anxiety disorder, and in dismissing it in this manner can bring about shame and concern that there is something ‘wrong’ with them. It is important for anyone to feel that whilst they may not always have control over the thoughts that pop into their thinking, that they have control over their feelings towards them and to the actions they can take.
Use phrases such as: “It sounds like your monkey Mind is screeching very loudly right now, let’s take do some breathing together to calm those primal brains down.”
“Let’s take a walk and you can tell me all that you are thinking about at the moment. I’m here to listen.”
There is no ‘One size fits all’ manual for being a parent and it is a journey in which you need to find your own path. Parenting an anxious child can add more stress and can often be exhausting and bring about our own feelings of guilt and anxiety.
Your child needs you to remain calm and hopeful. You are your children’s rock and if you express hopelessness, your child’s anxiety will spike.
Try this phrase: “Let’s work out ways to help calm our minds right now.”
It takes time and practice to learn to cope with anxiety. Your child doesn’t mean to cling, ask the same questions over and over, or fall apart at the school gates. Anxiety is behind these actions and others that occur every single day for many children. By responding with empathy and compassion you are showing that you take their worries seriously and that you are there to listen and help.
If you have spent time going down this path and you feel, quite understandably, that their worries and feelings of anxiety are beyond your own capabilities, seek outside help to get them the tools they need to learn to cope. Recognising their feelings and continuing to be there as support is what they need to see from you and will allow those communication doors to remain open, which is vital as they grow into young adults and beyond.
And remember to take care of your own anxieties. Rocks also need support, no matter how big, strong and resilient we look on the outside…
By Julia Johnston