Calming Anxiety in Kids: a Secret is to Stop Saying “Calm Down”
Working from the premise that mental skills, like physical skills, need training and practice to develop, Lynn Lyons offers coaching tips for parents on how to develop problem-solving capacity in children.
She addresses the question, “If you know you’re a worrier or have an anxiety disorder yourself, where should you start?” Researchers like Golda Ginsburg have demonstrated that when anxious parents are educated about how to change their own behaviour, they dramatically interrupt the future development of anxiety in their children.
Lynn recommends that “a good and concrete first step is recognizing and shifting catastrophic language”. Catastrophic language, pointing out the worst potential outcomes, lectures and “safety chatter”, excite a child’s imagination and build a sense of the world as a dangerous place. She states, “When you model catastrophic reactions, you are teaching your child to do the same. Yelling at children teaches them how to yell. Hitting children teaches them how to hit. Freaking out? Avoiding? Expecting danger at every turn? They learn that, too”
She suggests some language models that might feel strange initially, but are worth practising so that they begin to feel natural:
- Wow, I am really frustrated/upset/worried about this. I’m going to stop and think for a minute. Any ideas about what we should do?
- I need you to do some planning first. If you’re going to go, then you’ll need to think a few steps ahead.
- That is NOT a good idea. Can you think why I might say that?
- Things are not going well right now. We’ll handle it, but I need a moment to figure this out.
Lynn points out that an anxious child or youth will want certainty and will ask questions over and over, but over a range of topics. She suggests, “When you constantly work to answer specific questions (even when you yourself don’t have the answer), you offer a short term fix (that’s addressing CONTENT), but when you teach a child how to tolerate and manage new situations, you teach them a PROCESS that works in a much more general way.”
Some suggestions Lynn makes for exercises to try include:
- At dinner, ask each person to talk about an unexpected thing that happened that day and how they handled it.
- If a child asks a question such as, “What happens if I forget to get off the bus at my stop?”, rather than reassuring or providing an answer, let the child come up with a solution by asking, “Well, let’s figure that out. What could you do?”
- Exercise the “mental muscle” by regularly trying new or challenging things. Use a white board or stickies, or put marbles in a jar, anytime a family member tries something new or steps out of the “worry-driven comfort zone”, such as trying a new food, taking a new class, etc. The goal is to celebrate the experiment, not just the outcome.
Lynn offers two videos exploring these strategies in further detail, one for children and one for parents. These can be previewed at http://www.lynnlyonsnh.com/books-videos/