‘Relax, Don’t Worry’ — Platitudes Don’t Help An Anxious Child So Here’s What To Do Instead
By Paula Schuck
Photo © apointofuphotography/Twenty20
Jul 21, 2020
"Don’t worry," I said months ago to my oldest daughter, who volleyed back: "But I can’t help it, actually. It’s what I do."
Recently, that’s got me reflecting on the words we use to speak to children and teens with anxiety.
For years, I thought my older daughter gave anxiety disorder way too much power when she said things like: "I can’t help it. I worry and I can’t just stop. I can’t relax or chill."
In Canada, one in five people struggle with a mental health problem or illness, which includes children as well. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health problem in children and youth.
"Clearly, I still have work to do if I still occasionally land on: 'don’t worry' or 'calm down.'"
My oldest daughter was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at six. After months of hiding in the closet before school started, missing school entirely, late slips and alarming talk, we finally found a psychologist able to determine what was happening.
As a family, we’ve spent years trying to understand anxiety, hunting down the right type of therapy and collecting practical ways to help her manage symptoms. In the early days, adults, teachers and others often used terms like "dramatic" or "lazy." I’ve heard those terms referenced often on report cards and in meetings.
In school, we have worked together to reframe anxiety disorder as something that is not willful, intentional, controllable or a character flaw. I know the right combinations of words to advocate for my child and educate others. I can coach both of my teens through anxiety attacks by phone, text or in person.
I can talk the talk, but do I always walk the walk? Clearly, I still have work to do if I still occasionally land on: "don’t worry" or "calm down."
Kids have experienced so much disappointment lately, but Paula has been surprised by how well her daughters have handled it. Read how her family did it here.
Moving Past Platitudes
There are dozens of things people say that are not at all helpful to children, youth and adults who have anxiety. So why would I say them when someone is struggling with an anxiety attack or worrying to the extreme? Words slide off the tongue sometimes so easily, reflexively, entirely without thinking. When I'm tired, as parents often are, I somehow revert to autopilot, repeating what I have heard myself.
But this is a habit I'm trying my best to break, and here's how I'm getting started.
Several good friends either have anxiety or are parenting children with anxiety, so I asked them to tell me about words that don’t work. Phrases like these popped up:
- "Just be positive."
- "It will all work out."
- "Just breathe."
- "Are you taking your medicine?"
- "Why do you think like that?"
- "That’s nothing to worry about."
- "It is what it is."
For the person with anxiety, some of these phrases are useless, some are dismissive and some are even condescending and belittling. So what phrases would be helpful?
I asked my teens for their feedback. Teens can be extremely insightful at times and my kids have always been my greatest teachers. Right now, as they are home more, I’ve been trying to actively listen to the ways in which they learn, and the worries they have. I check in frequently to assess mental health during the pandemic because it has been such a challenging time. So, I asked them to describe what they need and what doesn’t work.
Here’s what I have learned.
"I like to think that I’ve shown my kids not to give up or give in to pain." Paula is also a mother with Crohn’s Disease. Read how she's parented with it here.
How Can We Do Better?
Don’t: Fill spaces with words. An anxiety attack is overwhelming and scary, too many words just make it louder.
Do: Lean in and listen actively.
Don’t: Panic when the child or teen panics.
Do: Put your oxygen mask on first and approach from a place where you feel regulated.
Don’t: Assume to know what they need. (When kids are very young, you may need to help them figure that out.)
Do: Ask them what they need. (Every person is different. My one daughter said, "I need space when I am anxious. If a crowd gathers around me asking if I am OK, it makes it worse." My oldest daughter does well with frequent calm reminders that she has all the tools to cope with her anxiety. When she was little I’d repeat, "You are safe.")
Don’t: Say something like "just breathe" or "just" anything.
Do: Gently show them how and remind them to do deep breathing, triangle breathing, square breathing or butterfly breathing (breathe in deeply as you open your arms like wings, breathe out as you bring the wings together).
Don’t: Keep pushing if it’s a school task provoking anxiety.
Do: Suggest taking a break and trying again tomorrow.
It can be easy to forget that anxiety can feel like fear, which leads to angry outbursts in kids. Compassion, silence, listening, validating emotions and helping them identify emotions all help.
And from my experience, I know children with anxiety can learn skills to help them cope with it throughout life. My older daughter flourished in high school. She recognizes anxiety in other students and often helps them to identify what’s happening and work through it. Soon, she will start university with hopes of becoming a social worker.
So, why do words matter so much? Is it just being overly sensitive? I don't think so. Children, youth and adults with mental health disorders deserve respect, care, love, support and dignity.
Telling someone with anxiety to “be positive, don’t worry and be calm” when worrying is a part of their daily life experience is kind of like saying: “Don’t be you.” Words and actions matter, so I'm working on how I approach my kids so I can help launch them forward into the future.
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