Parenting with Purpose: Calming the Anxious Child

By Neil McNerney

All kids get stressed and worried at times. They might have butterflies before school, a new activity or sport, or even going over to a friend’s house. For most kids, these anxieties are short term and situational. But for many kids, these fleeting worries can turn into a significant problem. In this column, I will share some ideas to help children who are dealing with anxieties.

These ideas are for children older than nine years. Younger children need our immediate calming presence because they might not have the abilities to reduce their anxieties on their own.


Step 1: Don’t immediately try to calm them down.

I know that this seems counterintuitive. It’s our job to keep our kids safe and help them not worry so much. But if we try to calm them down each time they get worried, one of two negative outcomes might happen.

One, they might become dependent on us to calm them down instead of learning how to create calm within themselves. Instead of learning some calming techniques, they will immediately seek us to help decrease their anxiety.

Two, it might actually increase their worries, since they don’t think we are taking them seriously. Imagine your child sharing that he is worried about a thunderstorm approaching. We say: “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” Instead of just accepting it, he might get even more anxious and upset because you aren’t taking him seriously. There might be a point when reassuring will help, but don’t use it as your first attempt.


Step 2: Let them know you get it.

Instead of trying to minimize, let them know you understand how worried they are. Validating a child’s emotions can do quite a bit on its own to reduce anxiety. Instead of starting with comments like “It’s no big deal” or “Everything will be fine” or “Don’t worry,” try these: “This is a big deal for you” or “Your pretty scared right now” or “You’re really worried, aren’t you?”

By validating their worried feelings, we are creating an environment that might allow us to help create calm. This is a bit paradoxical, since our natural tendency is to immediately try to calm our child, but it tends to help quite a bit.


Step 3: Help them think of calmer thoughts.

Instead of giving them the calmer thoughts immediately, see if you can help them come up with some calmer thoughts.

One of the ways you could do this is by using a 1-10 scale. For instance, you receive a thunderstorm warning on your phone and your daughter starts worrying about a tornado hitting the house. You might be tempted to say, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” Instead, try asking: “On a 1-10 scale, where 10 is that a tornado will definitely hit our house, what number would you give the chance that our house will be hit?”

This technique stops one of the most common anxious thought: All or Nothing Thinking. By using a 1-10 scale, you are trying to scale back the intensity of the thought to something more reasonable.


Step 4: Discuss bravery.

After we’ve validated their worry and tried to help them reassure themselves, it’s time to discuss bravery. This is a concept I use quite a bit in my work with children and teens. Bravery, in my opinion, is not about being fearless. It is about facing fears. A truly brave person is feeling fear and doing the right thing anyway. If someone is fearless, they aren’t being brave, they are just fearless.

For example, your son is very anxious about an upcoming swim meet. He thinks he will finish last in the butterfly. He doesn’t want to swim and instead is hanging on to you, complaining that his stomach hurts.

I would suggest beginning with: “You seem really worried right now about this, aren’t you? What are you worried about?” He shares with you that he is afraid he will finish last. Instead of jumping in and reassuring him that he won’t finish last (because you know there are some pretty slow kids in his group), you ask him: “Take a look at the kids that are swimming the butterfly. On a 1-10 scale, what are the chances that you will finish last?” Hopefully, he will begin to decrease his worry as he assesses the competition.

If this doesn’t work and he stays anxious, you can then try the bravery concept: “I know that you are very worried about this race, but I have also seen you face your fears in the past. I know how brave you are, and I know that this race will take a lot of bravery. Do you think you can face this fear and give it a shot?”

By trying these ideas, my hope is that you will teach your kids ways to reassure themselves, which will decrease the level of anxiety in general. If you are interested in learning more calming techniques, the website has excellent ideas and videos about how kids can calm their brains, thus reducing anxiety.

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.”

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