So you recognize that your child is feeling anxious and know you’re wondering what do you do next. Do you ignore it and maybe it will go away? If you talk about it, will it make them feel more anxious? And if you do talk about it, what do you even say that could possibly be helpful?
Wow! So many questions, so many unknowns. It’s enough to raise our own anxiety levels!
Whether we’ve experienced feelings of anxiety with our kids in the past or not, I imagine helping our children navigate “new normals” and re-engaging in life will bring up feelings of anxiety not only in ourselves, but also in our kids. The “new normal” we are moving into takes a lot of energy to engage in. It can feel unsettling because no one has done this before and therefore we have no blueprint, no road map from which to frame our experiences.
So whether it’s talking to our kids about anxiety they might be feeling about the pandemic or fears about making friends, doing well in school, splitting time in different household if parents are separated, how do we have a conversation with kids that helps them to experience more calm rather than more anxiety
1. Acknowledge what’s going on.
Pay attention to changes and shifts in your child’s behavior. Do they have a lot of extra energy? Have their sleeping patterns changed? Appetite? Are they more emotional? Withdrawn?
And then say something. You might start with “I’ve notice that you’ve been quiet and not wanting to play with your friends as much. I wonder if you’re feeling anxious about something?”
2. Ask the right questions.
Rather than a leading question “Why are you anxious?” ask what about a situation is making them feel anxious or unsettled. Work together to identify the source of the anxiety.
A great question to start with is “What about playing with your friends makes you feel anxious?” They might share that someone has been making fun of them or it might be that they are scared that they might get sick if they play with a friend. Both of these situations can cause feelings of anxiety but knowing the source can help you to come up with a plan.
Some great follow up with questions could be:
- What does your body feel like?
- When was a time that you felt anxious and you handled it in a healthy way?
- What do you need to hear when you
3. Focus on What They Do Know.
It’s common for us to want to fix the problem and tell our kids that everything will be okay. But the truth is we don’t really know if everything will be okay. For example, if your child is feeling anxious about getting sick, we don’t know if they will or will not get sick. We do know that we are making sure to take care of our bodies and make them as strong and as healthy as possible…etc.
A helpful thing might be to write a list of everything they do know so that they can remind themselves in the future. One conversation will not stop feelings of anxiety but it will help them start to get the tools they need to move through those feelings in healthy ways.
4. Develop a game plan.
Using what the child does know about the situation, help them develop a game plan. For example, if they are anxious about returning to school, get a plan in place. Talk about what they might do if they do start to feel anxious. This post has some great physical ways to help calm the body.
When you are making a plan, be specific. If the plan is to call mom or dad when they feel anxious, be specific about how many times or when mom or dad can answer the phone. If they are feeling anxious about a big spider, make a plan to be in the room together while you take care of the spider. Talk about how their heart might be racing and they might feel like running away but how taking deep breaths and talking with dad or mom while in the room can help them to feel more calm.
And one last thing.
Have intentional conversations about anxiety with your kids. It’s important. But it’s also important to talk about other things. When you have a kid who struggles on a daily basis with feelings of anxiety, it can begin to feel like that’s all you think about and talk about. Focus your attention and your conversation on the things that are going well with your kid and the places where you see them being successful. As the saying goes, “What we focus on grows!”
To get more action steps, connection with community, and research-based teaching on parenting and anxiety, check out our online course “Parenting an Anxious Child.” In this course you will get tools designed to help you experience more calm in your family.
Hannah Benedict, M.A, LPC-Intern
Hannah loves anything that gets her outside, baking, and reading. Through her counseling practice, Hannah partners with people to give them practical solutions for intentional living. She has a master’s degree in counseling, specializing in children and adolescents, and is a master’s level PCI® Certified Parent Coach.