You know that look: anxiety on the verge of defiance. Parents often ask me for ideas on how to help a child with his anxiety, how to get through the moment, maybe even build him up, rather than triggering something worse. When children are already sensitized like this, the usual admonitions to ‘buck up or else’ may result in even more anxiety and increase the level of resistance.
In these situations, even praise can cause anxiety – ‘good job’ can feel like a judgement instead of a reward and inadvertently make the child feel more on edge.
Many are already taking medications to help with anxiety. Medication can help us succeed when we implement approaches but medication alone cannot cause a child to learn to help himself or to become more resilient.
There a couple of principles I suggest we consider in working with anxious children:
1. Use empathy first and compliance will follow
Children tend to become more anxious when we directly work for compliance. This is because they sense our request and become anxious and then resistant. Even if he does comply, maybe out of fear of loss of privileges, the child only learns to obey, not to think for himself. He is still anxious inside, just cowed on the outside. That is how prisons usually control inmates and that’s also why they do not do well in helping people think for themselves and make better decisions once they are released. Current research shows that we need to instead take the child’s point of view first – put ourselves in his shoes and let him know that we understand it is hard for him to do whatever it is, then figure out together what we might do to make it possible. If you are sincere and gain his trust, he will be much more able to work with you together to figure out some ideas to try to help him do what he needs to do.
2. Use mild, respectful statements, not questions, to talk with him.
You know what it’s like when people ask you questions, maybe ‘Why did you do that?’ or ‘Do you want to be punished?’ It puts us on the spot and makes us more anxious. The person asking the question is clearly taking a powerful position over the other person and working to get what they feel they need from the other, less powerful person. Some people do learn from this kind of pressure (law and medical schools are infamous for doing this to students) but we now know that it is not the most efficient way to learn and many people are overwhelmed by it. For children, especially those with learning or developmental challenges, this extra anxiety is often far more than they can handle. I find it better to avoid questions and take a ‘one-down’ position, making statements that show the other person that I am not trying to make a big deal about being in charge (even though I am in charge). So in instead of questions I use mild respectful statements to clarify the situation and work together toward a solution. This helps the other person feel more in control – they often then help me to solve our problem.
Putting these together:
‘I can see that this is hard for you. You don’t want to do this. I’m not sure what the hard part is – maybe it’s… (it’s ok to guess and have him correct you). It looks like we do have to…. (Whatever the task is or the problem of the moment). Maybe you have some ideas about how we can do it…’
Then, when the child does achieve something, instead of a judgement like ‘good job’, note the achievement itself: ‘you really fixed that’ … ‘wow you really know that stuff’. Or, when it makes sense, show your gratitude. ‘thanks so much – that helps.’
Make the encouragement match the situation – noting every little achievement can be important or might not be needed, and similarly, a little more thanks is usually in order, but if you overdo it and it is not sincere the child will either sense that or, maybe worse, believe you and be out of sync with other people’s sense of value.
Anxious children can be very challenging to help, and a little time thinking ahead can go a long way to supporting them to become more able to work with us and become more able to manage their anxiety.
I hope this helps.