Nearly all children will have fears or worries at some point during childhood—fears of the dark, of heights, of spiders, or monsters. But for up to a third of children and adolescents, their fears become profound and can develop into an anxiety disorder. Most parents strive to protect, comfort, and reassure their anxious children with responses that validate their emotional experience. Saying things like, “I see how worried you are. This is really scary for you.”
Showing your child that you care is loving and supportive, but these responses may actually unintentionally fuel and grow the anxiety in the long run. If you have a child with anxiety, consider trying a different approach that may feel counterintuitive.
Your child may ask, “Mommy, what if kids make fun of me?” or, “Daddy, I know I’m going to mess up,” or state “I know there is a monster in the basement!”
Anxious children need their fears to be questioned, demystified, debunked, and problem solved.
You probably already know that responses like, “Honey, you know that monsters aren’t real!” rarely work to soothe your child because the thoughts that drive the anxiety are rarely logical. Using logic against illogical fears is not likely to work.
A new response to consider is asking questions such as, “And what if it is true? What would be so bad? What could you or we do?”
Most children’s replies tend to include the perception of not being able to survive their fears. The benefit of this new line of questioning is to encourage your child to practice their problem solving skills, and most importantly, to strengthen their confidence in their problem solving abilities.
If you can start to encourage your children to question and problem solve their thoughts and fears while they are younger, they’ll be in the habit of doing the same when they move into the teen years when their fears or worries can become more nuanced.
The more you as a parent can help your child notice when fears and worries arise and then encourage creative problem solving, the less distracting these feelings will be down the road.
Ellie Pelc, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with specialized training in early childhood development, child trauma, behavior therapy, and psychological assessment and testing for learning issues, attention and memory challenges, and emotional functioning. She can be reached at Parents Place in San Francisco: 415-359-2454 or [email protected].
Workshop Coming Up! Helping Your Child Cope with Anxiety (in San Rafael on April 4 for parents of children aged 5 – 10 years)