If your child is anxious, worried or a perfectionist, you know the signs.
The worried child shows: wringing hands, clutching the belly, crying, fingernail biting, angry abrupt responses, tantrums, self-loathing, criticism and comparing themselves to others.
Parents suffer too! It hurts to see a person you love suffering with worries.
What worsens this situation for parents is the futile dance in which you are trying to help and your efforts appear to backfire. If you have ever tried to help a chronically worried child, you know how frustrating it can be.
Perhaps these common examples sound familiar:
- Your anxious child is complaining, unable to stop the fear that they will be unable to achieve something. Homework, a tryout, a social event, public speaking; a new task looms and your child is falling apart. As a kind and resourceful person, you step in to offer reason and practical steps toward success. Your child explodes! “You don't understand,” they say. When you try to reflect that you indeed have lived longer and do understand, the child storms off unwilling to accept your care.
- Your child expresses confusion about how to handle a situation that is clearly provoking anxiety. You talk gently with the child, helping them to break it down. The child argues with each point, painting themselves into a corner with no way out. Then they blame you for feeling so stuck and hopeless.
- Competition and comparison loom large for your child. When they express the discouragement they feel and the fear that they will never size up to the bar set by others, you reassure them that they are so good themselves and not to worry about what others do or think. You get the look that says: You're no help at all; and the conversation is over.
- Your kitchen counter has become the daily crying spot for your child. As the tears stream down his face, you reach out to give a hug and express your concern. You mention that you are there and that you are worried, maybe they need more help. Your child pushes you away, “I don't need any help! There is nothing wrong with me!”
Helping a child when they feel actively anxious or chronically worried presents a unique challenge.
Parents often blame themselves or each other. Having no clear way to move forward for what on the surface seems like a simple fix creates doubt about one's parenting. I often hear parents remark that they must be doing something terribly wrong for their worried kid to have these strong feelings. They may also feel worn out by the child's complaining and concerns. When conversations prove fruitless, parents may give up listening entirely. If your child summarily refuses solutions and comforts, why try?
You tell yourself if you were a better parent, your child wouldn't worry so much.
But here's the thing, worry is a feeling like all others. Like happiness or frustration, it tends to build on itself: more worry creates more worry. This does not mean you are failing as a parent. You have stumbled upon one of the hardest parts of parenting.
Before you add worry to worry, take a step back and breathe. No part of your child is intentionally trying to hurt them. This may not seem true, but I assure you, all parts of each of us are trying to help – no matter how ineffective and even harmful the result.
Here are three shifts to start right now…
Realize your child's worry is coming from a part of your child rather than the whole kid.
I know it may sound strange, but you know that your child doesn't constantly display anxiety and worry. We tend to look at the child and say, She is worried! But it is truer and more helpful to recognize that the child has worry. Rather than responding to the worry as a character flaw, you can think of it like pain.
When a child is reacting from pain, you might state “where do you feel it?” This question applies wonderfully to worry as well. Rather than asking: Why are you worried? – a question that brings a child fully into their brain to find a story for the worry – it is far better to help the child notice the sensation that worry creates in their body.
When your child's body is experiencing worry, the first line of aid is the body. In this way, it is easier to tell if the worry comes from a simple nervous system reaction to the outside world or an internal reaction to a thought or both.
Again, think of the worry as pain. Questions like: Where do you feel the worry? When did it start? When did you not feel the worry last? Are all good questions to begin. All bodies cycle in and out of the subtle urge to fight, flee or freeze all day long. Teach your child about their feelings as normal parts of a healthy nervous system. Avoid any aggressive or blaming of worried presentations.
Practice being a calm witness without judgement when your child is openly anxious or displaying another characteristic of worry.
Once you've been able to determine that your child does, indeed, feel some kind of worry, anxiety or fear, it's important to get calm yourself. Obviously if there is imminent danger to the child, respond with clear action. But if your child feels worry without a danger to address, you need to provide a calm witness. Do not hesitate to request help from a trusted support for your own worried energy. If you detect that you are afraid of your child's worry or angry at your child's worry – it is important to deal with this internally to really help your child. There are many good ideas in my book, and a therapist is also a great resource. Be patient with yourself in the meantime, and take small breaks to calm and center.
Here's how to be a calm witness with a worried child:
- Breathe gently and notice your own body.
- If you have parts of you that do not like the child or the child's worry right now, practice asking them to just step back for a few moments. (This takes a little practice, but it's worth it!)
- Check for patience, compassion, curiosity and caring in your own body and mind. Invite these qualities to sit with your child.
- Just listen with an open heart and notice your child's worry speaking. It may ebb and flow between worried, angry, calm and frustrated. Just observe without trying to solve or fix. This is much like watching a fish swim or a flower bloom. There is nothing to do at this moment.
Offer assistance only when the child is able to request it and take it in. (Or in the case of obvious physical emergency).
This assistance may include anything from a cooperative action to a gentle touch. When a child's anxiety feels overwhelming, their Sympathetic Nervous System is firing. Thus, their biological body is telling them to fight, to flee or freezes them without knowing how to respond. It's important to listen to what they feel they need at the moment and to remain calmly responsive.
As the child begins to calm, make a gentle effort to connect. Some excellent ways to connect include using eye contact, a small touch, humor, listening to music, tapping or walking together. At this point, if the child feels connected and clearer about the worry, you may help them address the worry with a simple solution.
Listen to what the worried part needs and facilitate reasonable changes, especially if the child expresses motivation to follow through. Notice, too, if the child reveals too many adult responsibilities like taking care of your emotions, relationships or financial worries. In these cases, assure the child that you will make some changes yourself to help.
Children, like all of us, are entitled to all of their feelings.
Having a full range of emotional expression makes for an authentic and meaningful life. But if your child's worry has become too large, carrying the burden of painful beliefs, it's important to remember that your loving presence is the starting place to help your child through this particular pain.
For more help with chronic worry for you or someone you love, get my book today.