I work with a lot of kids with anxiety. Not all of them meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder (some do, some don’t), but they do have anxiety that is no longer manageable without help. To that end, I teach coping strategies to both children and their parents and listen to the worries that keep kids up at night.
While all children are different and have different sources of stress, I have found a common theme among my anxious kids: They worry about worrying others. Imagine worrying all day about a wide variety of things and then adding worrying about how you might make others worry to that very long list of worries? It happens. A lot.
As I tell the kids I work with, anxious kids often have a tendency to be highly empathic kids. Not only do they have their own emotions to to process, but they also take on the emotions of those around them. Sounds unfair, doesn’t it?
At some point in treatment I ask all of my worriers the following question: What is one thing you wish your parents understood about your anxiety? While the wording of their answers varies, there are some common themes that emerge in response to this question.
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but below are ten of the responses I hear most often.
It’s really hard to stop worrying.
Your kids don’t want to feel anxious. In fact, when I follow up with, “If you could make one change right now, what would it be?”, they almost always respond, “I would stop worrying.” You can’t just hit a button (or take a magic pill) and make anxiety disappear. It takes time and work. There will be peaks and valleys. Your children need you to understand this.
My worries are real to me.
Adults have time and wisdom on their side, and sometimes this causes parents to minimize the worries of their anxious kids. That’s a mistake. Regardless of what you think, your child’s worries are real to her. Meet her where she is and listen.
I don’t want to make you sad or upset.
How you respond to your anxious child is important. When you get frustrated with your child’s anxiety, your child feels responsible. When you tell your child that his anxiety makes you sad or overwhelmed, your child feels responsible. Your child doesn’t want to upset you. He just wants to tell you how he feels.
I don’t mean to be annoying.
Anxious kids tend to ask a lot of questions. Often, they ask the same question repeatedly. This is because they feel a complete lack of control and knowing the plan helps. They aren’t trying to annoy you by peppering you with questions, they just want the information. Visuals help.
I really can’t fall asleep alone.
When the lights go down, the worry brain grows in size. Kids are active little beings and even the most anxious ones can push their worries down by day, but the worries will emerge at night. They aren’t trying to power struggle at night – they really do struggle. Mindfulness and guided imagery help. Push the bedtime up to allow for extra time to settle down.
Holding your hand helps.
Your kids know that you can’t fix it for them or make the anxiety go away. You can’t save them from it. When I ask what they want from their parents when they’re anxious, they often cite holding hands, snuggling, reading together, drawing together or taking a walk together as helpful strategies. In short, they want you.
You can’t fix it for me.
You might feel like you have the answers because you’ve been through something similar or you view the problem through a different lens. They don’t want your quick fix strategies, though. More often than not, your anxious kids simply want you to listen and empathize.
I need extra time with transitions.
Change is really hard for anxious kids. They can’t move from teacher to teacher or place to place as easily as their non-anxious peers. When their schedules are overhauled without warning, they panic. Take the time to help your anxious child adjust to change. Talk details and be honest.
Asking “How can I help?” is better than telling me what to do.
Anxious kids don’t always have the solutions or know exactly what they need, but barking out orders tends to cause a spike in anxious feelings. Ask; don’t tell.
When you tell me not to worry, I feel like a failure.
Telling an anxious kid not to worry isn’t fair. Learning to cope with worry takes time and patience. They can’t stop their anxiety overnight and they feel pressured when parents say things like, “Don’t worry so much!” Try something like, “What do you think is causing you the most worries today?”, instead.
For information and strategies to help your anxious child, pick up a copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.