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How to Calm Anxiety in Kids

The Secret Is to Stop Saying “Calm Down!”

When I talk to parents in my practice and at workshops, I’m very clear that what a parent does matters. This sounds obvious, but many books and articles about anxious kids tend to gently wade into (or avoid entirely) the reality that parents might have something to do with why children are anxious and worried.

When I take the stance that what we do matters, I’m not looking to blame…quite the opposite. For me, the fact that research shows the clear generational patterns of worry and anxiety disorders is GOOD news, because researchers like Golda Ginsburg have taken this research and gone the next step.

When anxious parents are educated about how to change their own behavior, they dramatically interrupt the future development of anxiety in their children.

Children copy us. From birth, humans are wired to learn by watching and imitating. Our children speak with our accents, mimic our gestures, and (hopefully) cheer for our sport teams. And, they often adopt our view of the world.

Is it a safe place? A land of opportunity, or a minefield of potential dangers? Is perfection the standard to achieve? Are mistakes a part of learning and growing?

Current research shows that anxious parents, not surprisingly, have certain perspectives or parenting styles that predict increased anxiety in their children. The identified parenting styles that can increase and even cause anxiety disorders in children include overprotection, over-criticism, and expressing your fears and anxieties in front of your children. (I call that safety chatter.)

If you know you’re a worrier or have an anxiety disorder yourself, where should you start?

Catastrophic Vocabulary: Anxiety’s Language

A good and concrete first step is recognizing and shifting catastrophic language.

Catastrophic language refers to the alarmist, worst-case-scenario words we use when describing situations or giving directions or advice. (The Weather Channel, I’ve noticed recently, is catastrophic as it works to hold viewers.)

If you’re a catastrophic parent, you’re a predictor of doom.

With a fear-based attitude designed to protect those you love from the next calamity around the corner. You offer advice–“Be careful when you cross the street!”, but then tend to lecture in some detail about what will happen to those that are careless. “Do you want to hear what happens to kids who aren’t careful? I’ll tell you…”

Your goal is to protect and to minimize risk, but the unintended effect can be a child that doesn’t learn how to take ANY risk, and whose vivid imagination becomes skilled at seeing the world as a dangerous place.

Perhaps even more impactful is the emotion that comes spilling forth as you anticipate or manage being in a risky, dangerous, or even simply unexpected situation.

What are you showing a child with words and actions when you lose your luggage, get a flat tire, lock your keys in the car, discover someone has hacked your credit cards, or get lost in an unfamiliar city? How do you emotionally escalate on the way to the airport, or when you’re running late for an important appointment?

The goal is not to suppress your emotions completely, but you must consciously model problem solving and the ability to stop, assess, and plan even when you’re feeling less than certain.

Freaking out and problem solving are not compatible.

When you model catastrophic reactions, you are teaching your child to do the same. Yelling at children teaches them how to yell. Hitting children teaches them how to hit. Freaking out? Avoiding? Expecting danger at every turn? They learn that, too.

Here’s some language to help you model problem solving without the catastrophic alarm bells. It will feel fake and strange at first, but do it anyway.

  • Wow, I am really frustrated/upset/worried about this. I’m going to stop and think for a minute. Any ideas about what we should do?
  • I need you to do some planning first. If you’re going to go, then you’ll need to think a few steps ahead.
  • That is NOT a good idea. Can you think why I might say that?
  • Things are not going well right now. We’ll handle it, but I need a moment to figure this out.

You may also have noticed that your anxious child or teen often asks a lot of questions, looking for adults to provide the answers. And as parents, we do our best to answer them with the information we have. Information seems like the antidote to worry, doesn’t it? Well, sometimes.

But kids who worry want certainty and will ask questions over and over again. The problem is, the answers move from topic to topic.

Answer the question about the new teacher, and there’ll be another question about the weather soon to follow. Or the carpool, the new dance class, earthquakes, or flu shots. They just keep coming.

How to calm anxiety? Don’t offer the certainty anxiety wants to hear.

When you constantly work to answer specific questions (even when you yourself don’t have the answer), you offer a short term fix (that’s addressing CONTENT), but when you teach a child how to tolerate and manage new situations, you teach them a PROCESS that works in a much more general way.

Rather than giving children content based answers full of reassurance, I want you to think bigger: How can I teach this child to manage as she steps into unfamiliar territory? 

How can I help her develop a process of thinking that helps her problem solve and thus feel more equipped?

A child that can say, “I don’t know what will happen when I get there, but I’ll figure it out” is far better equipped than a child who relies on adults to give a blow-by-blow schedule before he or she can proceed.

If it’s a simple question, like “What time does my dance class end?” then go ahead and answer.  But if you hear worry talking (“Will I like my new dance teacher?” or “What if I can’t learn the new steps?”) then help the child learn to tolerate not knowing, and prime him for the problem-solving that’s on its way. (“I can hear you’re worried about that. I wonder how you’ll handle it?”) Coach him when needed. Work together to help him problem solve.

Remember: Give your child a skill, not just an answer!

How families can teach skills to manage anxiety in kids

Below are some (fun) ways to teach the important skills that minimize anxiety and worry. These exercises are helpful to both prevent anxiety from moving into your family, and to divert its path if an anxiety disorder has already shown up.

At dinner, ask everyone to report on an unexpected thing that happened that day, and how they handled it. Remember, worry wants certainty, so normalizing the unpredictable parts of life supports flexibility and problem solving.

Resist the repeated use of the phrase, “Be careful!” as your child heads out into the world. Or carries his plate to the sink. Or has a pillow fight with his brother.

Problem solving is a critical skill. When your child asks a question like, “What happens if I forget to get off the bus at my stop?” resist the impulse to reassure immediately (“That won’t happen, honey!”) or to provide the answer (“You can tell the bus driver and she’ll help you.”) Instead, let your child come up with the solution. How about, “Well, let’s figure that out. What could you do?”

Anxious families are good at avoiding as a way to stay comfortable. Keep track of the new or challenging things that family members try. Use a white board or stickies, or put marbles in a jar anytime a family members does something new or steps out of the worry-driven comfort zone. New food? New class? The goal is to celebrate the experimenting, not just the outcome.

Parents, I have two videos exploring these strategies in much greater detail, one intended for children and the other for parents.

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