Reassuring Anxious Children


To reassure, or not to reassure, that is the question that often plagues parents of anxious kids. With a skinned knee or a bad dream, we know what to do. When it comes to our children’s worry, it is not always clear. We want to take away our children’s distress, but for many kids, it’s not enough to say, “it’s ok, don’t worry,” because worry, with a life of its own, seems to be whispering in the other ear—”but what if?” This begins the limitations of reassurance. While most parents and caring adults instinctively respond to children’s anxiety with a reassuring, “it’s ok, don’t worry,” the benefit for anxious kids, if any, seems to be very short lived, and the cost is often frustration.

For parents the frustration comes from being asked the same question twenty times in an hour and for kid’s frustration arises when parents answers have no impact. Why don’t anxious kids gain much confidence from the answers? What can caring people do to help an anxious child? Taking a closer look at the how and when of reassuring anxious kids, we will find that we can do much more comforting of children by listening to their fears and teaching them the steps to evaluate and dismiss the fears themselves. Spending extra time looking at the question, rather than taking it at face value and rushing into the answer is the starting point. When children understand how anxiety operates, this frees them up to look at situations from a different elevation, rather than being smack in front of a worry bully, they rise above, see the worry as a glitch rather than an forecast, and with their newfound power, can step out into life knowing that the risks are manageable.

We need to expand our concept of what qualifies as reassurance—while we might be tempted to take away our children’s problems with our words, a new mindset is not to take away the problem but rather to recast it in a new light—is the problem really a problem at all? When a child is asking, I have my book report tomorrow, do you think it’s going to be ok? You can probably gather him up and say, “I know you can do it!” and that will be that. If however, your child says, “mom I don’t think I can go to school tomorrow,” because he’s afraid that his book report is not good enough, or that he’ll freeze up, or that kids will laugh, or that he’ll get a bad grade and that will prevent him from going to college, the situation can no longer be taken at face value. Something else is going on.

When is it ok to reassure? If your child basically knows the answer to the question but just wants that extra mental hug, a few words will help. When won’t reassurance work? When your child has lost him or herself in fear. Then is it better to take a step back. When your child is really confused about what’s realistic, what’s not. Whether we are talking about a child with obsessive compulsive disorder who is confused about whether his hands are contaminated because he walked by someone who was using a tissue, or a child with separation anxiety disorder who is afraid that a robber will come into the house, children in these predicaments are locked into a process—they are afraid of the disturbing picture or idea they are entertaining. They need to know what other options they have. If we want kids to not just react, but to step back and see why they are reacting, they need parents to tell them who is making the trouble. “Your worry is really Turn worry on its head.

Key points:

  • Separate facts from feelings: How upset you feel isn’t any indication of how likely something is to happen.
  • It is not about withholding your love or concern, it is about seeing clearly what is going on—your child is stuck in a head lock with catastrophic ideas and you need to help him break free and get thinking clearly.
  • Finding your language: Try to be comfortable and genuine—first repeat the concern—you are really worried about the book report.

Next clarify your commitment—I really want to help you with this.

Help your child to verbalize his fears—some examples:

  • What are you afraid will happen What are you expecting will happen What is worry telling you about the book report? What are you picturing in your mind?
  • Use lists or thought bubbles.

Next have your child think about what they really believe is the most likely thing to happen. If they were to use their smarts and make a prediction about the day, what would they say is the real story. Tell me why this does not need to be on your worry list.

  • Problem solve: Is there anything they actually need to do get tready for the report—extra rehearsal, editing, etc.
  • Have some fun: Write smart thoughts on cards Stage an argument or debate between worry and your child—switch off roles Put worry in court and ask it to prove it’s case Make a song out of the worries—when you sing “I’m going to fail my test” to the tune of happy birthday, it sounds silly.

What is Anxiety?

All children experience some fears and anxiety. They can be a means of protection in unfamiliar situations, helping kids to approach with caution. Some anxiety can help improve performance in a situation, for example with a test. When a child has too much anxiety, this means that this protective mechanism is interfering with functioning by exaggerating risk in a situation and, as a result, leaving a child feeling that he or she must avoid the situation in order to cope.

Why is Worry So Scary?

When kids are anxious, it’s typically not because of the situation itself—the dog, the swimming pool, the closet—but rather their appraisal of the risk in the situation. Worry generates thoughts, which could be considered the worst-case scenario story. Instead of describing what is realistic or most likely to happen in a situation, worry projects all the things that could go wrong in the situation. We all get scared when listening to scary stories. Any one thinking that there is a monster in their closet, or that a dog will bite them, would be scared. But our degree of fear is not a good indicator or reflection of our actual degree of risk. This is the first lesson to teach your child. When we help them distance themselves from worry and hear it as one version of the story (a notoriously exaggerated, unreliable version), we open up the possibility of generating other more accurate versions. Once children can get a more accurate appraisal of a situation, they will need less coaxing to approach, because it will feel more manageable to them.

How to Generate Other Stories

With the help of a puppet or stuffed animal role-play, even preschool-age children can learn the basics of talking back and taking charge of worry. Let’s say Flipper the seal is afraid of going to the doctor, because the Worrybug is telling him (in a funny voice), “you can’t go, you’re too scared, your doctor is not nice!” Then maybe Terry the Turtle could be the brave one telling Flipper, “Don’t listen to the worrybug, your doctor is nice and your mommy will hold your hand.” A parent can then say, “the worrybug isn’t being nice to you, let’s boss him back and teach him that you can go to the doctor.” With older children and teens, cartoon thought bubbles can be used to illustrate the differences between the worry story and what can be considered the “smart story” (the one with the facts). It is important to have your child start out by listing his or her worries; then the alternate smart thoughts can be generated by having him or her correct the mistakes that worry is making. You can ask your child, “what would you want to think about this if you weren’t worrying, or what were your friend think in this situation?”

Re-Approaching One Step at a Time

Once children have reduced their perception of risk, they are ready to approach the avoided situation one step at a time. Be patient and help your child decide what he or she is ready to do and what would make it easier, for instance, holding his hand in the swimming pool, or offering a flashlight in the dark. Rather than reassuring kids about anxiety, encourage them to enlist their smarts to correct worry’s version of the story, and turn the mountain back into the molehill. Overcoming anxiety is not a race of speed, but rather of skill. As long as you are moving forward, your child is going to win. If you are unable to move forward because your child gets more upset when you attempt to work on it, seek professional help. Even if your child’s fears are typical, if your child is stuck, you need strategies to break free. Learning how to overcome anxiety now can mean a lifetime of possibility for your child.

tamar chansky phd

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