Are you wondering how to help your child manage their anxiety so they can face their challenges instead of avoiding them?
Imagine a scenario:
A 6-year-old is at the doctor’s office for immunizations. She is scared of getting shots, so she begins to scream, cry, and scramble behind her mother. Her mother, deeply connecting with her child’s fear, becomes overwhelmed herself. On the verge of tears, she says, “I’m sorry, honey, I’m sorry.” Her agitation is evident in her voice.
How do you think that child feels when she sees her mother was noticeably upset?
More than likely, her brain tells her, “If mom is feeling so upset, this shot must really be scary!” Mirroring her mother’s sense of overwhelm, she’ll scramble and cry with all of her might, fighting for her life instead of learning to manage her fear. Avoidance, like a child hiding behind her mother to avoid a shot, is a tactic we use when we experience anxiety about a situation.
It goes like this:
Brain (noticing something in the environment): Oh, that doesn’t seem safe! We are not about to mess with that. Run away, run away!
The little girl getting the shot was me, and I remember that event to this day. I also remember the nurse eventually telling my mother that if she couldn’t calm down, she would have to leave the room while I got my shot.
Helping Kids Manage Anxiety
I grew up with an anxious mother (a loving, creative, joyful mother – and an anxious one). Now, as a mother myself, one of my jobs is to help my kids face their fears. I want them to learn to recognize dangerous situations appropriately. I don’t want them to experience their fear as life-threatening when it’s unwarranted.
- When we cosign our children’s anxiety – like my mother did when I had to get a shot – we teach them to believe that the lie their anxiety is telling them is true. They internalize the message that life is too scary and they can’t handle it.
- When we teach them to manage stress and fear, we demonstrate that we have confidence in their ability to face scary things with the necessary support.
To help our kids learn what thoughts and feelings to trust, we also must learn to regulate our own feelings (unlike my mother’s behavior in the doctor’s office that day). Teaching our anxious children to handle anxiety and stop avoiding challenges starts with us.
Recently my 7-year-old son had to get his blood drawn. I used the lessons from my own childhood and my training in anxiety to try a different approach. Instead of mirroring his anxiety (although I wasn’t feeling totally great about the situation either), I tried to project some calm and confidence for him to share. I wanted him to understand that, even though it would hurt for a moment, he would be okay.
The Conversation Went Like This:
- My son (seeing the needle, beginning to cry and try to hide behind me): I don’t want to get my blood drawn!
- Me (using calm, normal volume voice and body language, trying to keep any frustration or embarrassment out of my tone): Zeke, I can’t let you hide behind me. You have to get your blood drawn so the doctors can check if you are healthy (explaining the reason behind the scary event).
- Zeke (crying): I don’t want to, it’s going to hurt!
- Me (calm but firm, validating his feelings): I know you don’t want to, and you’re right, it is going to hurt a little bit -- but only for a minute. I promise that you’re going to be okay. And when we’re all done, we’ll get a popsicle, ok?
After a minute or two while the phlebotomist patiently waited, Zeke calmed down and sat in my lap. He looked away, a couple of tears running down his flushed face, and I repeated a little mantra to him in a soothing voice that came to me in the moment:
- Me (in a moment of inspiration): “You are doing great. It will be over in a minute. You are safe.”
After I said that mantra about four or five times, it was over. I made sure to tell him I was proud of him for getting it done (rather than making a belittling comment like, “See? You didn’t have to act like such a baby”).
And I was proud of him! It was a scary experience, and he used his resources and showed bravery. I was kind of proud of myself, too, if I’m being fully honest. After all, I was able to help my child manage his anxiety, and manage my own in the process.
And then … we both got popsicles.