In reality, none of us want anxious, worried children. Yet, parents frequently make simple mistakes that actually heighten childhood anxiety and exacerbate fears.
The more anxious we are as parents, the more we tend to be blind to our mistakes—EVEN when working hard to avoid this. In these situations, if not careful and without clear understanding, much of the effort to reduce anxiety actually contributes to MORE ANXIETY.
Mistake 1: Modeling anxiety through fear and worry
Anxious or fearful thoughts feed on our attention and repetition. The more energy and attention we give to them, the more they show up. The more we “believe” them, the stronger they get. The more we discuss them, the more they haunt us. (This is true for adults and children.)
The effect of our anxious thinking, however, is much TOUGHER on our children. This is particularly true when children are young and when we allow those anxious thoughts to filter into our parenting behavior. It is rare to see a calm, relaxed child raised by the anxious, worried parent who is constantly asking questions that raise fear and concern for the child.
The effects of every incident of “bad” things happening in the world are exaggerated in our lives because we can see it, hear commentary and have the event continue on for weeks and weeks, if not years (in the media). It creates, for us, a sense that the world is a place to be feared, prompting a deep sense of internal uncertainty. This will form a life filled with anxiety, worry and unneeded suffering.
Solution: How about respect, rather than fear? This allows us to understand how the world (good and bad) operates but without worry or fear of it Are we: constantly asking anxious questions, repeating ourselves over and over, refusing to allow our children to have a moment without supervision, even as they grow older? These are all functions of fear, rather than respect. We must do our best to stop this process, as it bleeds the happiness and ease out of life.
I suggest that, instead, you choose respect for the world, which points toward teaching conversations rather than worried comments. It allows you to infuse a child with trust in his/her judgment and intelligence, freed from fears and able to live a life maximizing potential.
We do this first by modeling trust in ourselves and making sure our attention repeatedly goes toward the actual task that we are facing. In other words, we are more action-oriented, rather than worry- or word-oriented. You can almost bet that excess words mean excess anxiety (not always, but often)!
Dig into your own anxious tendencies and do your best to reduce them. Exercise, do Yoga, meditate or try counseling. If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over you, and have you focus on what is good, positive and constantly uplifting, while devoting minimal attention to thoughts of low probability fears and worries. (But, of course, I have no magic wand, so there is still real work to be done.)
Mistake 2: Viewing anxiety as an “it” rather than a process
When we label a child’s reaction as anxiety, we perform a mystical transformation. We turn the consequence of anxious thinking into a thing or an “it.” Rather than keeping our awareness on our anxious thinking or beliefs, we misuse our language to transform a moving, dynamic process into a static, solid event.
This is a huge disservice to our children. Please be clear: I am not suggesting that anxiety is unreal. These feelings are certainly real, but we deceive ourselves when we think of them as the “thing.” The feelings are the result of the problem thinking and point to the source of the problem—anxious and fearful thoughts!
Train of Thinking: Let’s imagine a train moving along, with each car filled with thoughts. The anxiety your child feels is like the caboose—at the end of a train of thoughts.
Why is this important? Because the “caboose” cannot change where the train is headed! The power is in shifting the train of thought. Then the anxious feelings will automatically change.
When we discuss “anxiety” without attention to the anxious thinking, our children have no sense of control. Anxiety is constantly changing, and is, in fact, predetermined by the thoughts that precede it.
Solution: Make sure to stay focused on the dynamic process of thinking—on the thoughts that come first, before the anxiety. Your child can quickly learn to “tune in” to these. Focus children on what is changeable and within their control. Anxious or fearful thoughts are changeable.
Children have no idea of what to do with the anxious feelings, but, with a little awareness, help them change their thoughts and use your influence to reduce their anxiety.
Please note: This article should not be construed as a substitute for getting professional help if your child is exhibiting signs of anxiety. Please check with your pediatrician or a mental health practitioner if you have questions.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit www.TerrificParenting.com.