Hannah, an eight-year old, had her ears pierced two months prior, and now had a bright red infection on her left earlobe. After taking out the earring and fully cleaning the mildly painful area, she anxiously and adamantly stated, “I am done with earrings. I don’t want them anymore!” This is a kid who was overjoyed to get her ears pierced. As a parent, we have several options. We could back off thinking, “What’s the big deal about her having her ears pierced anyway? She changed her mind. It’s not that important.” Our own anxiety about interacting with her on this might lead to avoidance, assuming it’s better off not to have any confrontation about the situation. Alternatively, we can consider the long view. How is this situation a mirror of other situations she might face in life? What message are we sending her if we allow her to give up and let anxiety be the driving force in her life? The decision we make should be consistent with what is needed to help her ultimately recognize and utilize her strength and resilience.
Wrestling with how to best help empower children to more confidently deal with anxiety is an on-going challenge for parents. While avoidance may be immediately easier, in the long run kids don’t learn how to deal with fear, negative emotion, and uncertainty. This prevents them from recognizing their strength, competence, and the ability to steer their emotional ship through turbulent waters towards their goals and values. Below are evidence-based strategies for helping your child be brave and show up to life and all that it has to offer. By using these strategies, you empower your child to live life to the fullest and not put fear in the driver’s seat.
Convey Confidence and Routine as Usual
If you were taking a flight and experienced some turbulence, do you want the flight attendants to calmly and confidently continue handing out snacks, or rush over with a concerned expression, hold your hand, and assure you that you will be okay? Our body language, facial expressions, proximity, gestures, and of course, what we say, provide extensive information to our children as to whether a situation should be considered safe or dangerous. A parent who is nervous about separating from her child during an activity may hover at the door, wait and watch while her child walks away, peek in after a lesson has started, or even insist on being part of the activity or class while her child warms up or for the duration. When saying goodbye, they may overexplain to the child why she is going to be okay. All of this conveys to the child that there is definitely something to be nervous about. The moral of the story: when your demeanor is calm and confident, your child is much more likely to perceive the situation as safe and willing to take brave steps into new territory.
Teach Your Child to Be Their Own Detective
It is tempting to provide reassurance and answer your child’s fear-based questions (e.g., “You will be fine honey. Don’t worry about it.”). Because anxiety often involves fear of the future, anxious kids often turn to their parents wanting certainty about what will happen in any given situation. A child who is anxious about an impending storm may ask his parents repeatedly if the weather will be bad, when the storm is coming, and what he needs to do to prepare. Unfortunately, the reduction in anxiety the child feels from having parental reassurance provides only short-term relief. Soon, the child begins to feel distress again and seeks additional reassurance. As parents we inadvertently reinforce anxious behaviors by providing more attention to the anxiety than the bravery.
Over time, children can become reliant on parents in order to self-soothe. This sidetracks the development of independence and competence in managing their own emotions and determining solutions to their own problems.
Instead, validate your child’s concern and actively encourage her to answer many of her own fear-based questions with your support. Give the anxiety a name to externalize it and help your child boss back the anxiety when it shows up. For example, “It sounds like Mr. Worry is bugging you again. What can you tell yourself to challenge Mr. Worry and make him scram?” or “What evidence do you have that Mr. Worry is feeding you junk thoughts?” Ask your child questions to help her look more critically at her thoughts. Remember, good detectives look for clues and evidence to solve a problem. Key questions include: “What happened last time you were worried about this?” “Has this bad thing ever happened before?” “How likely is this bad thing to happen?” “What could you do to handle it if it happened?” These problem solving questions help your child develop the language and strategies needed to challenge her own fears and take ownership of solutions.
Develop a Step by Step Plan for Facing the Fear
Ask yourself: Is this a safe or age-appropriate activity or situation for my child? If it is, help your child find a way to face it, even if this requires a step-by-step approach. Look for ways to break down the situation into smaller tasks that lead to greater challenge as your child gains confidence. Offer encouragement and collaborate with your child along the way. If your child is afraid of insects, you might have him look at pictures of insects first and slowly progress to observing a dead insect, approaching shrubs and flowering plants, and eventually holding one. Normalize the anxiety as it arises when practicing brave behavior (“I’m not surprised Mr. Worry showed up, you were trying something new.”). Build in rewards and incentives for your child’s brave practice and slowly fade out supports as she builds confidence.
Set Clear and Reasonable Expectations to Discourage Avoidance
As you help your child work his way up the bravery ladder, set clear and reasonable expectations based on your child’s capabilities. Avoid jumping in to rescue your child too quickly, as this can signal to the child that the fear was justified and/or that she is not competent enough to handle the emotion or situation. For example, when he texts you to demand you pick him up from school because his stomach hurts before trying out for a team, encourage him to use his coping skills and the supports at school to manage the situation. Remember, learning how to handle discomfort will offer big advantages to your child in the long term.
Model Showing Up and Facing Uncertainty as a Family Value
Life is hard. We face trials and tribulations and we are only human. How we handle uncertainty, change and difficulty serves as a model for our children. When we demonstrate flexibility in the face of uncertain, unexpected or unwanted situations, we teach our children that there are multiple ways to solve a problem. When we approach fearful situations despite discomfort, we model the strength and openness to experience negative emotions and move through them. Negative emotions become viewed as tolerable, temporary, and a part of life. No longer are they aspects of human existence that must be avoided at all costs. We steer the ship through uncertain water and reach the shore at the other side.
The following sources offer additional information for helping youth with anxiety:
Raggi, V., et al. (2018). Exposure Therapy for Treating Anxiety in Children and Adolescents: A Comprehensive Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.Proper citation link for this blog post:
Raggi, V.L. (June 27, 2019). Empowering Children to Show Up and Approach Life with Bravery. Retrieved from https://infoaboutkids.org/blog/empowering-children-to-approach-life-with-bravery