I can feel that we’re on slippery ground even before I finish getting the words out. She doesn’t want to have lunch in school, but this is not something we can get around, not this time anyway. We’re prepared for the tears and for the explanations we know we’ll have to convince her. Saying it will only be for that one day seems to work.
We have been down this road so many times, our responses are practically automatized. We know that changes that other kids go through with a breeze cause her untold worry. We know that transitioning change is not always easy and can lead to moments of despair. We know that even the quietest shifts can lead to overwhelming storms.
Dealing with anxiety in a child can feel like constantly being in a delicate dance. Sometimes, I feel like we have been dancing this dance for years.
All kids suffer from anxiety, but ours is more prone to anxiety than other kids. We have learned to anticipate changes. We have learned to think and plan ahead. We can almost always tell the situations that are bound to send her into bouts of anxiety.
Most of the times we’re on top of things – most, not always -, and the available research on fostering children’s emotional intelligence has been of a great help.
Why fostering your child’s emotional intelligence matters
We now know that fostering children’s emotional intelligence is one of the most effective ways of helping them deal with big emotions such as anger and anxiety.
Research has shown that your child’s emotional state can create a domino effect in other aspects of his life. Researchers say that children who have learned to deal with big emotions:
· Are more likely to be school ready
· Are more likely to do well in school
· Are more accountable
· Take on more challenges than other students
· Have a higher sense of well-being
· Are able to think about and act in line with what is expected of them
Developing your child’s emotional intelligence is not just about talking about emotions and helping her identify different emotions. It is also about helping her learn to recognize her triggers because it is always easier to deal with sticky situations before they get completely out of hand.
Above all, fostering your child’s emotional intelligence is about teaching her to eventually manage difficult emotions on her own.
There is good news and bad news for parents whose children worry too much. The good news is that it is relatively easy to start developing your child’s emotional intelligence. Helping her learn to identify different emotions, making it a habit to name her emotions and those others display and teaching her that her emotions are all valid and simple ways to foster her emotional intelligence.
The bad news is that fostering your child’s emotional intelligence can feel like walking on treacherous terrain. The results are often long in coming and the wins can feel exceptionally small.
It is rarely said that children do not become emotionally intelligent overnight, and this can leave you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed when your child seems to “struggle for ages” with big emotions. Because the truth is that the childhood years are fraught with stress and change, and although some children are more sensitive to change than others, big emotions during this period are not uncommon.
We now know that nurturing our children’s emotional intelligence is not something we can get around if we want to raise happy, successful and self-confident children. But here’s the thing: determining what works is not always as straightforward as it seems.
When dealing with a child who worries too much, it is possible to feel that your attempts are useless – they never are. Remember that your child needs your help before she can learn to deal with her anxiety on her own.
Erik Erikson , a well-known development psychologist, described the emotional reciprocity between parents and children as mutual regulation. This process helps your child to develop a sense of trust and thus to navigate his way through difficult situations with greater ease.
According to Erikson, your child can only learn to deal with difficult emotions with your help.
If your child, like our daughter, is prone to worry, here are several tips that have worked for us.
Seven things you can start doing today if your child worries too much
1) Celebrate even the smallest wins
It is easy to feel like a failure when your attempts to help a child who worries too much deal with his anxiety seem to lead to mediocre results. It is important to think of your attempts as a long-term investment which will pay off with time.
Although your child may appear unchanged, he is slowly integrating the skills necessary to help him deal with his anxiety alone. Showing him that you are aware of and thankful for even the slightest efforts helps motivate him and show him that he is capable of success.
2) If your child worries too much, she needs to feel safe enough to effectively manage her anxiety
Emotional safety is a term commonly used in couples’ therapy, but it can actually apply to all types of relationships. In the parent-child relationship, it is about creating strong ties with your child and showing her that she is valued and means the world to you, just the way she is.
When you child feels emotionally safe, it is easier for her to express her emotions, and it is also easier to hold conversations around emotions because she knows that she will not be ridiculed for those emotions.
3) Focus on solutions, not on your child’s worrying
When dealing with a child who worries too much, it is common to focus on their anxiety. We now know that telling your child “not to worry” will not make him worry less. We also know that the more you focus on his anxiety, the bigger the anxiety monster grows.
We have learned that the most effective way to deal with our daughter’s anxious episodes is to focus on solutions rather than on her anxiety, and including her in reflecting on and finding solutions seems to help her deal better with difficult situations:
● What do you think would happen if…?
● What do you think you can do if…?
● What would you do if…?
When our daughter was anxious about changing classes, we made her think about two things that she would do immediately she got to school, and then we made cards on which we printed those things out.
Every time she would come back from school, she would choose a card (or both cards) if she had accomplished what she set out to do. We found that focusing on “exactly what she would do” helped calm her anxiety and made her feel successful every time she got to pick a card in the evening.
4) Find the trigger behind you child’s worries
Finding the trigger means having your work cut out for you. That does not mean that it’s always easy to identify the trigger. Your child can speak of one thing, but the trigger point can be something totally different.
It took us quite some time to find the exact trigger in our child’s behavior. The problem was not linked to changing classes but rather to the recess period.
Clearly identifying the trigger made it much easier to come up with appropriate solutions. Age-appropriate resources such as The Emotions Kit can help you identify your child’s triggers more effectively.
5) Don’t be afraid to talk about your own anxiety
How do you deal with anxiety-provoking situations? If you model anxious behavior, your child’s anxious behavior may worsen, and there’s evidence to support this view. That does not mean that you should hide your anxiety.
Showing a child who worries too much that you are anxious is a good thing – it teaches him that anxiety is normal.
That said, simply showing him your anxiety is not enough. You need to show him how to react to anxiety appropriately. How do you react when you are anxious? What do you do to calm your anxiety?
Modeling appropriate behavior to anxiety-provoking situations is one of the most simple and effective ways to teach your child to manage his anxiety.
6) Don’t describe your child as a worrier
Labels tend to stick. People tend to act in line with what they believe is expected of them. The more you describe your child as a worrywart, the more you reinforce her anxious behavior.
Instead of repeatedly describing her as “prone to worry”, focus on her positive traits and on her effort. Remember that depending on the situation, words such as “concerned” or “observant” or even “careful” can also be used to describe an anxious person.
7) Teach your kid that he can be anxious and still have an awesome day!
One of the things that has always worked for us when dealing with our daughter’s anxiety is telling her that she can feel anxious and still go on living. I spoke earlier of the cards we use to help her focus on solutions. Those cards always begin with the words “ I felt anxious but I still managed to …”. We want to teach our daughter that anxiety is normal and it does not have to stop her from having an awesome day.
Shielding your kid from anxiety-provoking situations is an ineffective solution if you want him to learn to manage his anxiety on his own. Although it may make sense in certain situations, it is simply a short-term solution that masks your child’s real issues with anxiety.
Instead of shielding a child who worries too much, help her to gradually step into the fear. That said, all attempts should be age-appropriate and should take her level of fear into account. Taking baby steps is important if you want to teach her that she has the necessary resources to overcome her worry. Remember that age-appropriate resources can help your child learn to identify and deal with difficult emotions.
Anxiety in kids is normal, but sometimes it’s not. Here are a few red flags to watch out for if your child is prone to anxiety:
· His reactions are disproportionate to the situation
· Anxiety gets in the way of his everyday life
· He is constantly withdrawn
· He has trouble sleeping
· His anxiety seems to be getting worse despite all your attempts to help
· He puts himself or others in danger
The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique is a simple and effective strategy that can help distract a child who worries too much. Grab your free copy below!
Please do not hesitate to seek help if you feel overwhelmed and unable to help.