This is a combined question from two concerned moms.
Q) My five year old has started showing signs of anxiety, stomach hurts every night at lights out. How do I support her without being either dismissive or enabling?
I'm interested in learning more about this, too. My almost 5 year old gets overwhelmed easily and has a hard time calming down. I wonder if he has anxiety, too.
A) Anxiety can be an underlying cause of a variety of undesired behaviors in children, from inattention to sadness and withdrawal. Read more about the signs of anxiety in children HERE.
What Not To Say
You’re not alone in your concerns about being too dismissive or enabling. Often, parents are unsure how to respond when their child bombards them with worries and fears.
Avoid statements like, "It will be okay" or "Don't worry about it" or “It’s not a big deal.” These can minimize their feelings.
Instead, we want to help them identify what they're feeling and show empathy. We want them to know that even if a feeling is uncomfortable and overwhelming, we can still figure out a way to resolve it.
Try these more reassuring statements instead, "I can see you're upset" or "I can tell this is a big deal for you."
We can acknowledge and help them label their feelings in this way without encouraging the anxiety. Labeling can help them seem more concrete and easier to resolve, rather than just some vague, confusing discomfort.
Of course we want our children to feel safe and supported. We can do so more effectively by helping them generate reassuring statements for themselves, rather than relying on us to do it for them.
Trying asking questions that challenge the irrationality of the fear. “How likely is it that [insert fear/worry] will happen?” Or, “What are the odds that your fear will come true?”
A simple example might be if they are afraid of the dark or don’t want to go to sleep at night. We can reassure them about all the times they were in the dark or slept by themselves and nothing bad happened.
Ask about things they can do to feel less afraid. Or ask what might help them feel safer. Maybe they would like an extra blanket or stuffed animal.
If they're worried about a test or grade, ask them what they can do to feel more confident. 'What could you do to feel more prepared/confident?'
If they can't think of anything, ask "Would you feel better if you studied more?"
Sometimes, if the child is mature enough to articulate their needs, we can simply ask, "How can I help you?" or simply say, "Let me know how I can help."
We want to encourage self-sufficiency, but we also want them to know we are here, if and when, they need us. We don’t always have to jump to their rescue. If we are confident in their ability to handle it, then they will be to.
If they're already pretty upset, just listening (and a hug or two) can work wonders. As they talk it out, they might be able to discover a solution.
Try teaching your kiddo some Fear Fighting Super Powers, like deep breathing.
Have them pretend there's a balloon in their belly, inhaling to blow it up and exhaling to let the air out. There's a cute Sesame Street video on YouTube with Elmo, Colbie Caillat, and Common singing a song about "belly breathing." Check it out HERE.
Another Super Power is to use progressive muscle relaxation.
One kid-friendly strategy is to pretend they are an uncooked piece of spaghetti, all rigid and straight. Then, they go limp, like cooked spaghetti, to relax all over. Each time, have them count to five before switching.
They can also try it with different body parts. Start with their feet by curling their toes tight, while inhaling, and then exhale as they relax their feet. They can progressively do this with all their parts from bottom to top or head to toe.
Doing these exercise a few times should relax them or at least calm them down enough to have a more rational conversation about their fears. It might just distract them enough that they forget the whole thing!
I love these techniques because kiddos can do them anywhere without necessary equipment. Added bonus, they work for mom and dad, too!
What super powers have you found helpful to fight your kiddo’s fears? Share in the comments below!
Thanks for taking the time,
Amanda is a licensed counselor with a practice in Westfield, just north of Indianapolis. She counsels worry warts, distant couples & also offers online coaching packages for busy moms who want to have it all on their terms. She lives with her husband, two boys, and not-to-be-ignored cat Sphinx.