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Building Emotional Intelligence: What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious

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Building Emotional Intelligence: What to say to children when they are are anxious.

Anxiety has a way of making everyone feel helpless – the ones in the midst of an anxiety attack as well as the ones beside them who would do anything to make it better. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do when your little person is flooded with anxiety. Different things will work for different people, so don’t be afraid to experiment with what works best.

Whatever you can do to be a strong, steadying presence will be the right thing to do. Nothing you say or do can make it go away, but if you can walk through it beside them, you’ll make a difference. 

Trust that they can cope, because they can – they’re amazing – and in time, as awful as it feels to go through it, and to watch them go through it, they will also trust their capacity to step bravely through their anxiety and come out the other side. Here are some things that can make a difference, but again, your child is the expert on their anxiety and what works, so be quick to take your cues from them:

When anxiety takes hold:

•  ‘You’re safe. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’

You might not be believed straight away, but that’s okay. This isn’t about changing anything. It’s about offering warmth, safety and comfort the best way you can.

•  ‘Whatever you do now will be absolutely fine with me.’

Part of the stress of anxiety can be not knowing what to do, or being worried that whatever they’re doing might not be okay. Validating their response will empower them to move through the feeling in their own way, and at their own pace.

•  ‘Do whatever you need to do. Even if it’s nothing.’

This is permission for them to respond how they want to respond, without feeling silly or as though they need to explain or ‘fight’ their response. The less people feel the need to fight the feeling, the more likely it is that the feeling can come and then go.

•  ‘Let’s go for a walk and see if we can find your strong breaths.’

Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). Try to help them to access their strong breaths while walking, but this will be easier if they’ve practiced outside of an anxiety attack.

•  ‘Your brain is thinking that it needs to protect you. Breathe – I’ll do it with you. It will let your brain know that you’ve got this, and that you’re okay. It just needs to know that you’re safe and then it will settle down.

Anxiety is from a fight or flight response, triggered when the amygdala in the brain perceives threat. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or not – the brain thinks it is and acts as though its true, fuelling the body to respond. That’s why anxiety feels like it does – every physical response is because the brain is getting the body to fight or flight. (See here for more of an explanation.) Breathing triggers the relaxation response which, like the fight or flight response, is also hardwired into all of us. Breathing can be almost impossible to access in the midst of an anxiety attack, so it’s important for them to practice strong breaths (in for three, hold for one, out for three, hold for one) each day when they’re calm, with the trigger words that work for them, so it’s easier to access when they need it. There are a couple of ways to do this:

>>  Invite them to imagine they have a cup of hot chocolate, and to breathe in the heady chocolatey smell for three, hold it for one, then blow it cool for three.

>>  Trace the infinity sign () with your finger on their back, hand or wherever feels right for them. Take 3 seconds to draw the left circle of the infinity sign and ask them to breathe in while you do this. Then stop for a second, and ask them to hold their breath – but just for a second. Now take three seconds to draw the right circle, and ask them to breathe out while you do it. Try to make it a fluid, relaxing movement – left circle for 3, hold for one, right circle for three.

These are just a couple of ideas to make practicing strong breaths fun, but whatever works for them is perfect.

And when they’re calm …

•  ‘I know how I feel when I feel anxious or worried about things, but I’d really like to understand what your worry feels like for you. Can you teach me?’

Empower them by acknowledging that they the experts of their anxiety – because they are. At the heart of emotional intelligence is being able to accurately identify a feeling when it happens. The more children are able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour.

•  ‘You don’t have to do this by yourself. Is there something I can do to help you feel less alone? Is it best if I say something? Nothing? Hold your hand? Touch your back? Give you space?’

There might not be anything that comes to mind for them, and that’s okay. 

•  ‘If you saw someone going through what you go through, what would you say to comfort them?’

This invites a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through it themselves.

•  ‘What if you could do anything in the world when you feel like this to feel better? Anything at all – doesn’t matter how crazy it is. What would it be?’

Give them in fantasy what is difficult for them in reality. This can help to open up the options, so help them to play with the ideas. Often there’s a sense of stuckness that comes from anxiety, which can give anxiety more power than it deserves. Sometimes, the best way to finding something that works is straight through the middle of the crazy, silly things first, (‘What if I could get that worry of yours and feed it a whole truckload of jelly so it was too busy to bother you? Or maybe we could play it some sleepy music? Or maybe some fun ‘dancey’ music to wear it out? What do you think?’)

•  ‘I’m here to listen to you if you like to talk about it? There’s absolutely nothing you can say that would be the wrong thing.’

Give them plenty of space to talk about what’s happening, but don’t try to change it or fix it. The more you can validate what they’re feeling, and give them permission to feel it, the more they can move through it and experiment with ways to deal with it.

•  ‘I love you – all of you, and everything you do.’

Because it feels like magic, and is always a lovely thing to hear.

•  ‘Brains change. They’re pretty amazing like that. You won’t always feel like this. Every time you breathe through your anxious feeling, you’re helping to change and strengthen your brain. You’re doing something pretty amazing and the more you do it, the better you’ll get.’

Brains have an extraordinary capacity to change and the more children can understand and accept this, the more empowered they’ll be to working towards this. Here are some words to help with that, but nobody knows your child better than you, so adapt them to suit …

‘Think of it like this: Imagine that in your brain are two important parts – a ‘feelings’ part that feels everything that happens to you, and a ‘thinking’ part that thinks about everything that happens to you and helps you decide how to behave. They are connected to each other by a pathway that’s made up of billions of brain cells (think of each cell like a brick). The two parts communicate by passing information from one cell to the next, to the next, to the next. Anything that ever happens to you will always go through the feelings part first. That’s the way it is for everyone. Then, the information travels to the thinking part which helps you make good decisions and work out the best way to behave. 

When the connection between the cells is strong, the pathway will be strong, and the thinking part of your brain will be in charge of your behaviour. This is because as soon as the feelings part gets worried or anxious, the thinking part can send a message quickly back saying, ‘You’re okay. You can calm down now because I’ve checked things out and there’s nothing that can actually hurt us, okay? But thanks for watching over us.’ When the pathway isn’t strong, the thinking part can’t get its ‘calm down’ message through, so the feelings part surges your body with chemicals that fuel you up to fight for your life or run for it. The idea is to make you strong, fast and powerful so you can protect yourself from danger. It’s this surge that makes you feel the uncomfortable things you feel when you’re having an anxiety attack. 

What’s important to know is that the pathway between the feelings part and the thinking part can always be strengthened. Here’s how …

Each cell along the pathway is able to grow 15,000 new branches to help it to connect to the cells beside it. The stronger the connection between the cells, the stronger the path. Every time you do something that helps you move through your anxiety, such as breathing or mindfulness, the cells grow new branches that connect them to the cells beside them, and the pathway is strengthened. It’s like weightlifting for your brain! Like any exercising any muscle – the more you do it the stronger you’ll get. Be patient though and whatever you do, don’t give up – it can take a while to get near 15,000 but you’ll get there.’

(See here for the Smiling Minds Mindfulness App, for mindfulness exercises from 7 to adult – it’s brilliant. And it’s free.)

And finally …

When it comes to dealing with difficult emotions – and anxiety is certainly one of those – anything you can say to validate, rather than change what your brave little person is going through will be important. Experiment with different things – kids don’t break when the adults in their lives respond to them in a way that’s empowering, loving and generous.

To strengthen and protect children with anxiety, explore their feelings with them and help them to tap into their own wisdom about what works for them. When they’re given the space, and the encouragement and the freedom to explore and experiment, kids can come up with wonderfully unexpected solutions to the things that are troubling them. They can be pretty amazing like that.

 

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146 Comments

Laura

Hi, I have a highly sensitive 7 yr old who battles different levels of anxiety every day. I also have a 4 yr old with autism. These techniques are invaluable for both my daughters. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, but never got this level of support, but I knew I had to do everything in my power to ensure they didn’t live in so much self fear. Due to their anxiety I cannot place them in public school. I try my best to meet their needs but dealing with it 24/7 is dragging on my own spirit. Thank you, re-reading these articles gives me the strength to try again tomorrow.

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Hey Sigmund

What an amazing, strong, wonderful mother you are. I can hear from your words how hard you work to be the best you can be for them. I’m so pleased the articles were able to give you what you need to keep trying again and again. We all need that from time to time. Keep going. You are exactly the mother your children need.

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Lina Cuartas

I loved the clear, procedural way the scenario is presented. Most interestingly, I think grown-ups need this kind of support and reassurance just as much as little ones, and I have used similar techniques with all ages. Thanks for a well-written, compassionate approach to help ease tortured beings, so abundant in these turbulent times.

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Janice Means

Conceptually, I like what you had to say.

I freaked out reading the first suggestion … when they are anxious.

• ‘You’re safe. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.’

I’ve experienced situations where I’ve had to deal with something when anxiety occurred. A storm knocks out the electricity and I have to leave their side to check on windows and doors.
Less extreme but the cat or OTHER child needs something as well. I can’t stay with the anxious child when the other child is in physical distress.

I feel the statement should end… I’m here with you now. It doesn’t set unrealistic expectations.

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Hey Sigmund

The idea with these statements is to use the ones that work best given the situation you are in. They might not all be appropriate for all children all of the time. Having said that, if your child is in the thick of anxiety and there is any way you can avoid leaving them on their own, that is always the best way to go. If you can, take them with you – whether it’s to check the windows and doors during a storm or to check on another child. When they are on their own there is nothing else for them to focus on but their anxiety and this make a scary thing even bigger form them. It’s completely understandable though that staying with them or taking them with you might not always be possible, such as with a school drop-off. In these cases, other statements or strategies might be more appropriate.

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Dr Uzma Noreen Usman

Thanks. This article really helpful me due to the fact that I have been fighting my anxiety since my childhood. Now after becoming a successful pediatrician and a mother of two kids, l am facing anxiety of my job, my husband, my kids. Your concept of consolidation of the synapses was great especially. It reminded me of the forgotten concept to be applied in this way for me and my family. Thanks again.

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Kelly

These articles are excellent. My 10-year old always wants to sleep in my bed and often wakes me up because she is feeling anxious. Her fears are irrational ones, but I never make her feel invalidated. My instincts tell me to comfort her, tuck her back in her bed, give her breathing to do, music, reading, distraction until she feels tired enough to sleep – but I do make her stay in her bed as I feel she will use this as a crutch and show up every night at my bed, never learning how to soothe herself. Is this the right approach?

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Hey Sigmund

Kelly it sounds as though you are handling this beautifully. If you don’t encourage your daughter back into her own bed, she will learn that avoiding her bed is the only way to soothe her anxiety, and that won’t work for anyone. It’s important to validate her as you are, comfort her and let her see that you believe she is brave enough to stay in her own bed. Over time, wind down the routine bit by bit so she doesn’t come to depend on waking up and having contact with you. One thing to do is to give her a cuddle, tuck her in, give her breathing to do and tell her that you will be back to check on her in ten minutes. Then, after ten minutes go back in, give her a kiss and tell her she’s done a great job settling herself and that you’ll be come back in another ten. Then go back after 10 and do the same thing. The idea is that she will be able to soothe herself because she knows that you are coming back. Over time, stretch out the time between when you go and when you come back. You will find that eventually, because she can feel safe and calm, knowing you’ll be back, she will feel relaxed enough to fall asleep within five minutes of you leaving the first time. Keeping going with your instincts. You are doing a great job.

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Ashley

The more we talk about it the better it will get. We have a campaign going on in our city about “taking a moment”. Last year was “share your recipe”. It’s all trying to encourage the younger generation to look at mental health in a different light.

Cool post!!

Ashley

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Sabah

I moved to New country and my daughter 8 years old start to scerd from everything and after she told me that she heard all the time sound make her doing stuff like talk to her self and cutting her hair and scratches stuff around her. She have new school and doesn’t like it. what should I do

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Hey Sigmund

Sabah, it sounds as though your daughter might need some extra guidance right now. From what you are saying, I think it is really important that your daughter is seen by someone who can give you a clear idea of what is going on for her. Perhaps start with your doctor, or if you know of a child psychologist perhaps try that. At any rate, your doctor will be able to guide you in the right direction. It sounds as though your daughter is going through a tough time and the best thing for her is to get her the support she needs as soon as you are able so that it doesn’t escalate. I hope your daughter is able to find some comfort soon.

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Cherri

My 7 year old has major anxiety anytime we are around dogs. I’m going to try some of these ideas to see if they will help. Do you have any suggestions specifically for anxiety around animals?
Thanks in advance.

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Hey Sigmund

There are certainly things you can do when there is a specific fear involved. I am in the process of writing something now for this – you would be surprised at how common it is. Stay tuned. I’m hoping to have it up in the next couple of weeks.

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Jo

My 10 year old has severe anxiety about school and being in the classroom, to the point where I can’t get her back to school. She is social and plays sport but is petrified about the classroom.
Is there anything you can suggest that might help her?

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Michelle

My 15 year old has anxiety and is nervous every day to go to school, though she is safe and the private school she attends is fairly small (a few hundred high schoolers). She hides it well, but I hate to see her in knots with the other social thing she has to do. It prevents my family from doing certain activities together because she’s too afraid to be around people. She trudges through the fears she can’t avoid and others cannot tell, but I wish I could fix it! This was a good article. It was informative.

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Hey Sigmund

Michelle I’m pleased this article was helpful for you. 15 can be such a tough age can’t it, and I completely understand how difficult it is to watch someone you love go through this. It sounds as though your daughter is working hard to push through her fears as much as she can. There is so much strength that comes with anxiety.

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R McManus

I really like your advice. I have tried some of these before, however during and since 11plus exams (uk), my 10year old daughter has at times shown high levels of anxiety. She started doing little patterns such as looking behind her to check for danger, tapping in patterns, not walking on cracks in pavements, playing with her hands etc. I have reassured her that they will not last and will eventually stop, but they go away for a bit, then return. I don’t know how to help her. Have you any ideas please?

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Hey Sigmund

Your daughter might really benefit from some outside support. A counsellor will be able to help your daughter understand why she feels the need to so the things she’s doing. In the meantime, here are other anxiety articles http://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. One of the most valuable things for anxiety is to have it explained. When there is an understanding around what anxiety is, it becomes less scary and easier to manage. Here is some information that will help with thathttp://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/

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Vanessa

This is the most useful and practical article I have read that can be applied for children, and of course adapted for adults too. It made me realise how real the anxiety is for the person in the grip of it, and that just being there is the most pivotal thing. I have recently learnt that 3 friends suffer from anxiety, and am sure my 8 year old does too. Having never done so myself, I want to understand what it is like for them so that I can be of use and comfort to them. Thank you.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Vanessa. I think most people would be surprised with how common anxiety is. It’s great that you want to understand what it is like for your friends who are struggling with it. It’s one of the best things you can do for them. Sounds like you’d be pretty wonderful to have on their team. In case you haven’t read them, here are a couple of articles about understanding anxiety in people you care about:

>> When Someone You Love Has Anxiety – http://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/
>> The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me – http://www.heysigmund.com/the-things-ive-learned-about-anxiety-that-only-people-with-anxiety-could-teach-me/

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Bob

I’m in a new relationship with my girlfriend and her daughter is having a hard time to accept me and she’s having anxiety attacks almost every time she sees me. She says things like I’m strangling her mom when I’m cuddling her and makes up all kinds of stories to try to make us look bad. She calls us names, and doesn’t listen to what we say.
My girlfriend and I really love each other and we are completely lost and we don’t know what to do. What’s the best way to tackle this kind of anxiety?

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Hey Sigmund

With patience – lots of patience. It’s completely understandable that your girlfriend’s daughter is struggling to accept a new person in her life. Remember, your girlfriend chose you, but your girlfriend’s daughter had no say in you coming into her life at all. That doesn’t mean she won’t be able to accept you and be grateful for you some time in the future, but it will take time, particularly if she is a little anxious. Her response is understandable. It’s not about bad behaviour, but for her, you may seem like an intrusion into her world. Give her time to adjust. She will be so grateful for your patience and tolerance. Whatever you do, don’t be the one to call her on her behaviour. It is vital that any redirection in relation to her behaviour comes from her mother. She has the bond with her mother that she doesn’t yet have with you, and that bond gives her mother the credit to be able to talk to her about difficult things. If the relationship is new, it might be an idea to give it some time before you and your girlfriend show physical affection in front of her daughter. It’s a massive adjustment for her daughter and if it moves to fast, it can feel threatening. She will have so many questions that she will be trying to figure out. Will you come between her mother and her? Will you take her mother away? Will you leave and make her mother sad? Will you leave and make her sad? Will you want to change too many things? Will you want to take control? Will you change too many rules? Will you want to live with them? These are all the sort of questions that will be buzzing around in her mind. Give her time to adjust and take the time to earn her trust. It will be worth it for all of you in the long run.

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Pallavi

Hey hi…just now I subscribed for this website…i m a mother of 7 yrs daughter…she never listen to us easily.Each n every time I scold her or sometime bit her then only she listen us…from her early she is not at all interested in food .Every time I have to force her .Sometime this works sometime not..She afraid of me….I really don’t understand what is the solution for this..Other wise she is very good at school ,study,friends. Hope I will get satisfactory solution here…thank you so much

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Hey Sigmund

Pallavi the problem with scolding your daughter is that it will not teach her why she needs to behave in a different way. Rather, it will teach her to behave in such a way to avoid being punished. This will be fine until you aren’t around. It takes time to build small humans into thriving, healthy big ones – a couple of decades actually, so be patient. Your daughter isn’t doing this to be ‘bad’, but because there is something she needs. It might be a sense of independence, the capacity to make decisions, a sense of empowerment.

What has happened to make her afraid of you? Is it the scolding? If so, it would be best to find something that works better. Rather than scolding her, talk to her about the behaviour that you would like to see different. This doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries – you absolutely have boundaries – but they are boundaries that make sense and seem like a logical, reasonable thing to do.

To use your food example, reward will likely work better than punishment or scolding. Try offering a treat for if she tries something new. It can take children 7-10 times of trying a new food before it feels okay for them. Let the reward be for trying it, rather than finishing it. This way, you are helping to move towards the food feeling normal, and no big deal, even if it is just a bite at a time. Also, give her some choices – whether this is at meal times, bath times, whether to pick up toys first or do another chore first, or what to war. It sounds as though it is important for your daughter to be able to make some of her own decisions, and that is a really healthy thing to do. The way to do this is to offer a couple of options, and let her choose. (e.g. ‘Tonight would you like to try carrot or corn? You only need to try one bite. You’re big enough to make your own decisions, so you choose which one.’) This can be really empowering and success will be much easier with a bite, rather than a whole meal. Here is an article with alternativse to time out which might help you http://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-avoid-shaming/

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Lisa

Hi, My 5 year old daughter is having issues with anxiety in her dance class. She acts out by not following directions, but doesn’t do this in other areas. When asked about it, she stated that she wanted the teacher to pay more attention to her and that she felt like she wasn’t doing a good job. I’ve talked to the teacher about it and this improved to some degree, but now it’s gotten so bad that the teacher has said that if this doesn’t improve she won’t be allowed back in class. She is an excellent dancer and can do all of the moves when she pays attention and tries. I’ve tried giving her rewards and consequences as well as trying to build her self-confidence both in her ability to dance and in other areas by giving her praise and telling her what a good job she is doing. What else can I try? Also, her recital is in a few days and I’m wondering if we should enroll her in another dance class after this or try something different? Thanks so much!

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Hey Sigmund

Lisa just from what you have said in your comment, if your daughter is not like this in any other areas, it sounds as though there is something happening in this class which is unsettling her. The only way to really understand this is to talk to your daughter or to observe the lesson. What does she think the teacher thinks of her? Does she find it hard? Easy? What does she think of the other kids? What happens when she does something well? Does she get noticed or does she only get noticed when she does the wrong thing? Does she feel pressured to do well and could she be self-sabotaging to avoid disappointing you or someone else (‘I can be a good dancer when I want to be, but I don’t want to be – it has nothing to do with my ability.’) Does she want to stay in this class? Does she want to keep dancing or does she want to try something different? If she could change one thing about the class what would it be? If you can chat to her and get some answers to these questions, you might have a clearer idea of what’s happening for her. I don’t believe that any child behaves badly for the sake of behaving badly. It is generally an expression of a need or an attempt to meet the need. The key is to find what it is that she needs from this dance class that she’s not getting.

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