Most parents care deeply about their children. Literally, they work 24/7 to provide for their children’s physical and emotional needs.
One area of difficulty for parents is to be calm and loving when their child is anxious or afraid.
Common mistakes parents often make
Here are some common responses that I have witnessed when a child was terrified of walking in a park with a dog nearby:
- “Stop being a baby”.
- “Stop that whimpering. You are making the dog scared and he could attack you.”
- “Why do you always do this? You are ruining our day”.
- “I will buy you an ice cream if you stop shaking”.
- “If you do not walk past the dog, I will have to drag you”.
- “Hurry up, I do not have time for this”.
- “Breathe deeply and think of your new toy”.
None of these responses are helpful. In fact, on the contrary, they only serve to escalate the child’s anxiety. In addition to feeling anxious, the child may begin to feel ashamed and abandoned. On top of the child’s reaction, the parent too is now worked up and distressed.
Possible reasons for the mistakes
There are several possible reasons parents behave this way when their child is anxious:
- A parent may simply not have the skill set. Not all adults are psychologically adept and being a parent does not automatically change that.
- A parent may have been brought up in a home where their parents did not know how to validate a child’s feelings. The cycle is repeated.
- A parent could be stressed herself and does not have the patience to handle more stress.
- A parent often finds it hard to watch somebody he loves so much suffer. All he wants is for his child to be happy. Therefore, when his child is not happy, he can’t handle it.
- Parents like to fix the problems their child faces. Jumping into ‘fix it’ mode can be an effort to help their child but it does not provide a safe space for the child to feel supported.
Tips on how to validate your child
- Learn how to be more psychologically available. Read self-help books, or watch videos, on how to listen actively and be empathic. If that does not improve your skill set, seek counselling.
- Reflect on your past. Are you repeating a cycle? If so, make a conscious effort to break it. Therapy may be necessary to help you to achieve this, as cycles can be deeply entrenched.
- Learn to manage your stress better. Your child needs you to be calm and able to contain a situation.
- While it is painful to watch a loved one suffer, being able to “sit” with a person while they are in pain is the most helpful thing to do. It strengthens the sufferer.
- The best thing a parent can do is give a child the skills they require to solve their own problems. It may take time for the child to gain mastery but the child will be less anxious and more resilient with problem solving skills. A parent needs to work on being patient and supportive while the child learns a new skill.
- Once you accept that your child feels pain, but it is not life threatening, the best thing you can do is simple BE THERE.
Tips on what to say
During the event, say things like:
- “I understand that you find the dog frightening”.
- “Many people are afraid of dogs”.
- “Take your time. We will move when you feel ready.”
- “I will walk slowly with you because we have to get to the other side”.
- “I will hold your hand”.
- “I will keep you safe”.
- “I am watching out for anything untoward.”
- “It takes courage to face your fears”.
After the event, you should:
- Talk to your child about his fear. Do not avoid the issue.
- Once again validate that it is uncomfortable to be afraid and it was an unpleasant experience seeing the dog.
- Reiterate that it is not the child’s fault that he feels anxious.
- Stress that anxiety is not a sign of weakness.
- Provide information that many people today suffer from anxiety. The latest statistic is that 1 in 4 people suffer from anxiety.
- Reassure your child that there is a lot of excellent help out there which will enable her to feel less anxious.
- Explain that you will be taking action. You will be making an appointment for the child you to see a psychologist who will teach her how to manage her fear.
The more patient and supportive you are, the safer your child will feel. The less judgmental you are, and the more acceptance you radiate, the freer your child will be to focus on, and manage his symptoms of anxiety.
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