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Helping children with anxiety is not easy. But there are some phrases that can really ease their intense feelings and make them feel better. And they can truly make a difference!
When my son was almost 3 years old, he received a wonderful gift from one of our friends: a big toy truck with lights and sounds that was moving on its own. He was so happy when he saw that big box and the red truck inside of it!
As I was taking it out of the box and putting the batteries in, he ran all around the room, jumping of joy!
When everything was ready he took the truck and started playing with it on the floor. He was so enthusiastic about his new toy! Then, after some tours around the room with the truck, I told him that it can also move on its own.
I showed him the button and he switched it on. I was expecting his joy to become even greater but this wasn’t the case.
As soon as the truck started moving around with high speed and the bright lights and loud sounds were on, the quickly stepped away from it and ran on the couch. He was standing with his feet on the couch, looking terrified.
I stopped the truck and sat next to him.
“What happened?”, I asked.
“I don’t like this truck anymore!”, he answered.
“Are you afraid of the way it moves and sings?”
He nodded and came closer to me.
“Oh”, I continued, “but you have nothing to be scared of! It is just a toy, it cannot hurt you!”
He looked at me and then sat down on the couch. I felt relieved thinking that what I said was helping. Instead, his cheeks turned pink and his eyes were filled with tears.
“What happened, what made you cry?”, I asked as I put my hand around him.
The tears were rolling down his face. At first, he hesitated to answer. Then he whipped his tears and looked into my eyes.
“I cannot be not scared like you said. I try but I can’t.”
And in that moment I realized how wrong I was. He trusted me so much that what I said to him made him question his feelings. Instead of helping him I was making him feel worse.
Not only that the fear has not disappeared but he was also feeling bad about being scared. I should have know better than doing this!
I took him into my arms and he hugged me.
“I am sorry”, I said. “What I said was wrong. You have all the right to be scared. And I am here to help you with this!”
We then talked about his fear and what can make things better. He decided that he will only play with the truck if it doesn’t move on its own and doesn’t make any sounds. He even asked me to take the batteries out to make sure that it will never move again like it did.
Then suddenly, as he played with it on the floor, he called me and said:
“I love this truck, mom! Thank you for helping me!”
My heart melted. And I promised myself that next time when he will be scared or worried I will do better and I’ll choose my words more wisely.
This is why I started to read many articles and resources about dealing with my child’s anxiety. As a child I also had anxieties and I know how difficult it felt to deal with them.
So I what to share with you some helpful tips that I’ve learned about the phrases that can really help kids when they are anxious. And about the phrases that have the completely opposite effect. Hopefully, these tips will help you when dealing with your kids’ fears and worries.
Helping children with anxiety: What not to say to an anxious child
There are phrases, like the one I used when my son was afraid of the toy truck, that can do more harm than good. Here are some of them and the reasons why they make things worse.
1. Don’t say “You have nothing to be afraid of / worried about”
This phrase only contradicts what the child is feeling. Kids will not stop feeling afraid just because we say that they don’t need to feel this way.
Instead, saying this will make them feel like it’s something wrong with them because they feel scared or worried.
2. Don’t make fun of the child’s feelings
Some of the children’s fears or worries may seem silly to us. My son was afraid of small dogs, masks, noises coming from our neighbors from above, even the blender. But this is normal!
Making fun of a fear makes the child feel more helpless and disconnected. In time, the child will learn to hide their fears and worries from the parent. And not being able to talk about an anxiety only makes it more powerful and hard to handle.
3. Don’t offer rational arguments before the child comes down
Anxiety is caused by the emotional part of the brain. When we feel a high level of anxiety, the rational part of the brain is not connected. So the rational explanations are not doing any good!
When the child feels very anxious he only needs to feel supported and understood. Only after the child calms down we can come up with rational arguments and find ways to “fight” the anxiety.
Helping children with anxiety: What to say that will really help
Here are some phrases that are really powerful when kids deal with anxiety. They show the children that they are understood and that we are committed to helping them overcome the fear.
1. “I am here for you. You are safe.”
These few words are the most powerful ones. This is exactly what a child needs to hear from us when they are afraid or worried. This makes them feel safe and connected with us. And it’s a wonderful first step for helping the child overcome anxiety.
2. “How can I help you?”
This question shows the child that we really want to help. The kids feel safe when they know that we are on their side and we will support them no matter what.
3. “How big is your worry?”
This question is a great starting point when talking with your child about worries. You can even invite the child to draw the worry and show you how big it is.
At the end of the discussion, after you have a strategy to help the child, you can ask this question again. Most probably the big worry at the beginning will be a lot smaller and less frightening at the end.
4. “I think that Moster Worry (or Monster Fear) is bothering you again. Let’s talk about this!”
Creating a character that personalizes the worry or fear is a perfect way to encourage kids to talk about their feeling. Ask them how the “monster” make them feel, what would they like to tell to the monster, and what plan would be good for fighting it.
Making things playful and fun will create a positive environment for the child to express the fear and overcome it.
5. “What could we do that would make you feel better?”
If you have some calm down strategies that your child likes, they can be of great help in these moments. Also, you can encourage the child to come up with ideas for activities that will help them relax: taking a walk together, listening to music, jumping and dancing to relieve the stress, reading stories, and so on.
Do you remember the story at the beginning of this article about the toy truck? Things not only got better that evening but they got even better later on.
After some days, my son came to me and asked if I still have the batteries. I said yes and he asked if I would like to stay with him as he puts them back. I knew that he was still afraid and this is why he wanted me close.
We sat on the floor and he pushed the button. The truck started moving fast with lots of sounds and lights. He watched it for a while. Then he stood up and started running after the truck, jumping and giggling.
He stopped just for a moment to tell me that I can go back to the kitchen because he needs more space to run. 🙂 He was no longer afraid.
Read more about helping kids with anxiety here: 5 powerful ways to help an anxious child calm down.
photo credit: Alena Ozerova / shutterstock.com