There’s a difference between a child who is worried and one who is experiencing real anxiety, which triggers a response from the nervous system.
I’ve watched my 9-year-old express true anxiety about situations that seem small to me, and until recently, I was saying all the wrong things. If your family has a child who experiences anxiety, here’s a list of things you should avoid saying — even if they’re coming from a loving place.
When my son was frantically, tearfully explaining his concern that his little brother, who’s 5, was going to run away forever after he told us, mid-tantrum, that he was moving out, my first response was to laugh. My oldest son was so sincere and so concerned about something that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Thankfully, I hid my laughter. Instead, I gave my 9-year-old a hug and told him not to worry, that his brother wasn’t going anywhere.
I was trying to be reassuring, but for a child experiencing true anxiety about something that feels completely out of his control, it’s hard for those words to sink in. He’s dealing with strong feelings of fear and helplessness.
A better option
First, try to address your child’s physical response. Ask him to mimic you, and then take slow, even breaths. Once your child has calmed down physically, it’s helpful to explain that you understand what it’s like to be frightened or anxious about something. Sharing an experience of your own will help you better understand how your child is feeling, and that can make it easier to relate to your child’s anxiety in that moment.
For a while, my son worried about the possibility that someone would break into his second-story bedroom. I tried explaining why this wasn’t feasible — that bad people don’t run around with ladders — and that he didn’t have to be scared of someone breaking in.
I was trying to make him laugh, but he found nothing about the situation amusing and he was working himself up to a full-blown panic.
A better option
Understand that when a child is anxious, he’s experiencing an internal alarm. Try validating the way he feels simply by acknowledging that he’s frightened and sharing that you’ve been afraid before, too. Sometimes, just knowing you aren’t alone in how you feel can be helpful.
When my son is stressing about something at the end of a long day, my patience is low. It can be hard for me to be patient. I’ve called him a worrier before, and it’s such a negative thing to say. I made a promise that I’d stop doing that, even before I learned why it’s so problematic.
Kids who experience anxiety recognize this about themselves, most likely because they’ve been labeled that way. Making a child feel guilty about feeling anxious helps no one. In all likelihood, it just makes an anxious kid feel worse.
A better option
Avoid calling your child a worrier. In fact, avoid labels of any kind. Instead, try discussing how anxiety works from a biological standpoint. It helps kids feel more in control when they begin to understand that their anxiety is just a natural reaction when they’re thinking about a scary or stressful situation. Choose a time when your child isn’t feeling anxious, and consider looking online together. There are many useful infographics that illustrate the concept in easy to understand images.
I’ve tried appealing to my son’s intellect when he’s panicking about being upstairs alone in his room while his dad and I relax downstairs. I list all the reasons he doesn’t have to worry: we’re right down the stairs, his room is a safe place, his sister is up there too, right in the room next door. But his fear is emotional, not rational. He recognizes that what I’m saying makes sense, but it’s difficult for him to focus on that.
A better option
This is another scenario where it’s best to address a child’s physical state. Begin describing a quiet, safe place. Ask your child to picture this space, to breathe slowly and evenly, and then to share details about what they see. After your child has calmed down, share the idea that feelings aren’t always facts. When a child understands that he can dispute his own feelings and point out they aren’t true, it can help him feel more in control.
When my son was experiencing anxiety, I thought I was replying in ways that would help alleviate his stress. I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t seem to help.
Changing my response in the little ways I’ve noted here — addressing his physical state first, validating how he feels, sharing my own experience so he knows that I understand and can relate to his feelings — have helped tremendously.
What else can I do to help my anxious child?
Try to find out if they have seen or heard something that is contributing to their anxiety. Limit their exposure to adult-themed movies, video games, and news. Ask them questions to find out what they think might happen, then encourage them to come up with ideas to help them master their fears.Karen Gill, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.