Body Mind

8 Things An Anxious Child Never Wants to Hear You Say (And What They Wish you Would Say and Do Instead)

June 4, 2017

Anxious children are scared.

They feel out of control.

Adults need to respond with kindness and empathy to help them:

  • Calm their minds and bodies
  • Validate their feelings
  • Give them tools to manage scary thoughts and feelings.

Parents and teachers want to help, but they’ve often never experienced the kind of anxiety that triggers a child’s

  • racing heart
  • raised blood pressure
  • rapid breathing/shortness of breath
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • dry mouth
  • stomach upset/nausea
  • shaking hands or legs
  • tingly extremities
  • sweaty palms or feet
  • cool, clammy skin
  • tense, achy muscles
  • dizziness

In attempts to help the child, adults often say things that intensify the child’s anxiety and invalidate his feelings.

Here are eight things an anxious child never wants to hear you say and what they wish you would say and do instead.

1. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

While this is meant to be reassuring, a child whose body is being flooded with stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, does not believe what you are saying.

She can’t.

Not when her nervous system is making her mind and body feel out of control.

What the child hears:

“I must be crazy to feel like this if there is nothing to be afraid of.  But, I am afraid, I feel funny.  Something is wrong with me.”

What You Should Say:

“How can I help you feel better?”

The child knows if their stomach is upset, if they feel lightheaded, their heart is racing or their mouth is dry.

Let them tell you what they need:

  • help to regulate their breathing
  • a glass of water
  • an arm around their shoulder

What You Should Do:

If they can’t tell you what they need offer a calming strategy like

  • Relaxation breathing. This calming strategy lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Breathe in slowly through the nose; hold breath for a few seconds, and release breath slowly through the mouth. Repeat at least 5 times or until the child has calmed down.
  • Positive affirmations: “You are alright.”  “I am here to help you.”  “Anxious feelings cause lots of funny feelings and they are scary, but they always go away.”
  • Fresh Air: Stepping outside or even opening a window and breathing in the smell of fresh air often instantly calms a child.
  • A Drink of Water: This helps with easing dry mouth.

2. “No one else is anxious but you.”

 The adult is trying to tell the child that there is nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, the child hears:

“No other kid is scared.  That must mean I am weird. Why do I have these scary thoughts and feelings when no one else does?  What’s wrong with me?”

What You Should Say:

“I understand that you are scared. That your mind and your body feel funny.  I am not afraid of this, but I understand what being scared feels like. There are times when I have felt just like you do now, and the good news is, the anxious feelings always passed.  Yours will too.”

What You Should Do:

 Share something that is causing or has caused you to experience anxiety.  Maybe giving a presentation at work, being stuck in an elevator, going on a rollercoaster.

(Experts say that sharing anxiety with a highly anxious child can validate their feelings, but it can also trigger additional fears.  So use discretion.  You know your child best.)

3. “Look at your sister (or brother, or the other kids in the class) they are happy…why are you always the one who is afraid.”

This statement, very much like number 2 (above) compares the child to his non-fearful peers.

It not only invalidates the child’s fears, but it also makes him compare himself to others, and feel less than.

(The beginnings of feeling the stigma of mental illness.)

What the child hears:

“I am not as good as those other kids.”

What the child thinks:

“I wish I were someone else.  I wish I felt like those kids too.  My parents (or teacher) would like me better if I were like them.  I would like myself better too.  I hate myself for being afraid.”

 What You Should Say:

“I’m so sorry that you are feeling anxious and upset.  It’s not a great way to feel, but we’ve all felt that way before.  I want you feel calm and peaceful.  Let me help you calm down now, and let’s work on creating ways I can help you, or you can help yourself when you feel this way.”

What You Should Do:

Help the child create a Calm Kit or Relaxation Station to help when he’s feeling anxious.

Calm Kits contain things that the child can use to help him manage anxiety.  It can contain any things that help the child relax.  Some ideas:

  • stress or squishy balls
  • aromatherapy spray
  • therapy dough (with essential oils is great)
  • fidgets like Tangle Relax Therapy
  • teddy bear or doll
  • pebbles or smooth stones to hold

Relaxation Stations are places at home or school where the child can go to relax and work through anxiety.  They contain many of the same items as a Calm Kit with the addition of these types of resources:

  • weighted lap pad/vest
  • weighted blanket ( warmth and gentle heat calm anxiety)
  • noise cancelling headphones
  • bibliotherapy books
  • downloaded relaxation music or videos on tablet/device
  • poster or chart of calming strategies/positive affirmations

4. “You’re such a Worry Wart, Big Baby.”

Often meant to be funny, these words label the child. The child feels ridiculed.  Shamed.  Talking to a child like this sets the stage for them to feel the stigma of mental illness.

What the child hears:

“You think less of me. I am stupid to worry. I am a loser.”

What You Should Say:

Replace labeling and name-calling with loving, positive affirmations.

  • “You are feeling anxiety. We all do.  Together we will help you feel less anxious.
  • “I know you are anxious now, but you are also brave and strong.”
  • “You are courageous.  You can calm down.  Scary feelings are okay, they won’t hurt you, and they always go away.

What You Should Do:

  • When the child isn’t anxious, develop a list of positive affirmations, like the ones above, which the child can use when feeling anxious.
  • Write them on index cards or on a memo app on the child’s phone.
  • Have your child or student use the affirmations regularly as part of an inner-dialogue of healing self-talk.

5. “Just Calm Down. Chill.”

If the child could just calm down and chill, trust me she would.  No one wants to go through the mental and physical stress of anxiety.

Think about it like this: would you ask a child, with any other illness, to stop having their illness?

Would you ask a child with epilepsy to stop having a seizure?

Would you ask a child using a wheelchair to get up and walk?

It’s not about comparing challenges; it’s about realizing that internalizing disabilities, like anxiety disorder, are just as real to the child or person with them as any other illness.

This statement indicates disinterest.

What the child hears:

“My anxiety annoys you.  Just be quiet.”

What You Should Say:

“I care about you.  I want you to feel comfortable.  How can I help you?”

What You Should Do: 

Focus on the child.  Make eye contact.  Hold the child’s hand.  Put an arm around their shoulder if they don’t mind being touched.

By helping them breathe, and be mindful of the here and now, you help ground them and offer a safe space.

6. “There You Go Again….”

This is another blaming statement.  It blames the child for feeling anxious, with the undertone that the anxiety is somehow distressing to the speaker.

What the child hears:

“I know, I’m anxious, AGAIN.  It ruins my mom’s (or my teacher’s) day and I’m causing trouble again.  I hate myself.”

What You Should Say:

Don’t worry.  We all feel anxious at times. Anxious feelings come and go. Let’s take some steps to banish the worry monster now.”

What You Should Do:

 When you see the child’s anxiety building, offer a distraction.

  • Something from their Calm Kit.
  • A spritz of a citrus relaxation spray.
  • A new environment.
  • Try what has worked in the past or offer something new.

Teach the child how to talk to themselves with kindness when they are anxious.  Most anxious kids beat themselves up.  Instead, teach them positive self-talk like:

“You’re okay.  You are struggling and that is hard for you, but you are a strong child and you will get through this.”

Make a Worry Wand.  The child waves the Worry Wand (like a magic Wand) and commands the worries to disappear. (I’ve used this with preschoolers and they respond to it well, when they aren’t in the midst of an anxiety attack.)

7. “Think happy thoughts!”

Wouldn’t it be great if thinking about chocolate chip cookies, puppy dogs and piles of presents warded off anxiety?

It doesn’t.

What the child hears:

“I can’t make the scary feelings go away.  It’s my fault.”

Positive thinking and visualization are great strategies to help manage anxiety, but when a child is in the midst of a panic attack, thinking about a trip to the candy store isn’t likely to offer instant calm. 

What You Should Say:

“Let’s focus first on calming your body.  When your body calms down, your mind will too.”

What You Should Do:

Support the child’s physical needs by helping them control their rapid breathing, racing pulse, etc.  Then you can offer some cognitive strategies to help now and in the future.

Once the child is calm, help them develop cognitive strategies to manage anxious thoughts.

Some ideas:

  • Mindfulness
  • Positive Self-Talk
  • How to recognize when they are ruminating or having distorted thoughts…for example: “Every kid in my class hates me.”  Help them reframe the negative thoughts: “Most people like me because I am a good friend.

8. “Be grateful. Other kids have things worse than you.”

Gratitude does help with anxiety and depression.  But when said to a child having an episode of anxiety, they come off as callous.

What the child hears:

“My feelings don’t matter.  I should be more grateful and I’m not.  I am a bad person.”

What the child feels: guilt and shame.

What You Should Say:

“I know these feelings are scary and upsetting.  You are okay.  Let’s be grateful scary feelings always go away.”

What You Can Do:

Offer kindness and empathy.  When the child is calm, help him come up with practical ways to manage scary feelings.  This might include a gratitude journal, or any other strategy that helps him reframe negative scary thoughts.

Final Thoughts:

You may have said some of these things to a child.

That’s okay.

Your intention was to help; you just didn’t have the understanding how their anxiety and your words makes them feel.

For children with anxiety, the best things you can say or do convey love, empathy and kindness.  When a child feels loved, safe and connected, anxiety decreases.

The poet Maya Angelou probably has the best advice: “People may forget what you say or do but they will never forget how you make them feel.”

 

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