Anxious Kids At School. How to Help Them Soar.

Anxious Kids at School: How to Help Them Soar

Kids are all so different and the world needs the brilliance that comes from every version of them. 

We can’t know what they’re capable of, not for a while anyway. Some kids will start unfolding their potential in a certain direction from early on. For others it will be much later. Sometimes it won’t happen until well through adolescence, early adulthood or later. What’s important is making sure they’re supported enough to find that spark and ignite it when they’re ready.

There’s a risk though, that the potential of an awesome bunch of humans is being squandered.

Anxious Kids At School – What’s getting in their way?

Anxious kids will have the emotional intelligence, academic intelligence, strength, courage and social skills to light up the world, but because they’re often quiet, capable and no trouble at all, they’re easily overlooked. Teachers do amazing work, but the nature of the school system makes it difficult for them to get to know the detail of every child. 

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As with anyone, the best way to support kids with anxiety in being the best they can be is by first understanding the way they see and experience the world. Only then can we start to give them what they need, so they can give the world what it needs, which is them.  

It’s not that they need extra support – they don’t. What they need is for that support to be the type that respects and nurtures who they are, rather than the type that firsts insists they change into someone they’re not. They’re no different to anyone else like that. We’re building people, amazing ones, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Success at school shouldn’t depend on having the confidence or extroversion to speak up, ask questions in a room full of people, or approach an adult they have no rapport with. Not yet. Not when they’re young and probably not even when they’re older. There are just too many children who will be stifled by the expectation – not because they’re not capable – but because they are less extroverted, perhaps less confident, maybe a little more anxious and more likely to keep themselves and their skills, knowledge and opinions quiet.

Of course, eventually we all have to be responsible for asking for what we want and going after that, but there’s no hurry to get there. In some children more than others, those skills needs to be nurtured, nourished and built, and that can only happen in an environment that supports them in feeling safe, noticed, free to experiment and free to fail, which will be where some of their greatest learnings will come from.

The expectation that all children should be asking questions, asking for help and making themselves visible from from primary school, or even middle school, is creating a culture where extroversion and confidence is rewarded and introverted, anxious or shy children are being overlooked. That’s a problem for all of us. Their compassion, their insight, their wisdom and their ability to connect are things that the world needs. 

Now for what to do about it …

There are things about anxious kids that will hold them strongly in the world one day. In the meantime, it’s important to recognise, accept and celebrate who they are, but let’s not expect them to be different. More than that, let’s do what we need to do to support them in being the amazing humans they are.

Your child’s teacher is in a prime position to do this, but to do this well, he or she might need to understand your child a little better. Teachers have a limited amount of time and given the tendency of anxious kids to hold back with people they aren’t comfortable with, it can be difficult for teachers to understand them enough to know what they need to flourish at school.

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You  know your child better than anyone on the planet and it’s this information that can make a big difference to your child’s experience and success at school. Think of your relationship with your child’s teacher as a partnership. Teachers want to do the best they can for your child, so give them whatever information they need to help them do that.  All of us have certain things we need to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Most teachers, the good ones anyway, when given the information they need to know about your child, will work really hard to give your child what he or she needs to fly. Here are some things that can make a difference:

  1. Understand their idea of ‘risky’.

    Kids who struggle with anxiety often don’t like being the centre of attention at school. Because of this, they’ll be less likely to take risks. For them, a number of things might come under the umbrella of ‘risky’, including speaking up, asking for help or clarification, asking questions, or having a go. It’s not for any of us to question the rationality of this – it is what it is and for them, it’s real. Understanding this is important to building their trust.

  2. Validate them. And don’t push too hard.

    When encouraging them to do something brave, it’s not enough to say, ‘Don’t worry.’ Think of it like this: Imagine that someone is telling you to put your head between the open jaws of a lion. ‘Just turn your head sideways and rest it on those big lion teeth. Yeah they’re sharp. And yeah it’s a meateater. And yeah, you count as meat. But don’t worry. You’ll be fine.’ Of course we’re not asking our kids to put their heads into the open mouths of lions, but we are asking them to do something that doesn’t feel safe, and just because we tell them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it straight away. 

    What they need is to be validated (‘I really understand that asking a question can be scary for you,’) then given time and understanding to actually experience the environment as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.  They won’t believe it will be okay until they feel it themselves. For some children it will take years to be convinced – it’s just the way they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the meantime …

  3. Don’t wait for them to ask for help.

    They’re still learning that it’s okay to extend themselves into the world and that it’s okay to need help – but they’ll only learn this with experience. In the meantime, it’s important that they are supported in building their confidence by having someone check to see how they’re doing. Anxious kids generally won’t ask for help for so many reasons – it’s risky, it will bring attention, they’ll have to engage with someone they don’t feel comfortable with, and ‘what if the teacher explains it and asks me if I understand and I still don’t get it?’ They don’t hold back from asking for help to be difficult. It’s just something that feels bigger than them so they’ll convince themselves that they’ll be able to work it out themselves. When you think of it from their side it makes complete sense – they’re not about to look for lions with open, head-shaped mouths because a teacher tells them they should.

  4. Don’t wait until they under-perform to check how they’re doing.

    School isn’t a confidence competition and the reluctance of anxious kids to ask for help shouldn’t mean that they’re ignored and left without the support they need. If they are left without that support, they could end up with their confidence being shaken to the ground if they perform badly on a task. Anxious kids are generally really keen to please and will be quick to feel shame if they think they’ve disappointed. It’s important for teachers to be aware of this and to do what they can to give these kids the support they need to do well. That means not waiting for the them to ask for help, clarification or confirmation that they’re on the right track. It just won’t happen. They’re not great at coming forward, which is fine because their strengths lie in plenty of other things. Check on them, approach them and guide them – just don’t wait for them to ask for it. 

  5. And don’t wait for them to ask questions. 

    Teachers often let their students know that they (the teachers) are always available to answer any questions that anyone might have and that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. That’s all important … and none of it will make any difference whatsoever to a child who is anxious. Here’s why. When confident kids ask a question, it will likely come from a place of, ‘Well if I don’t understand then there are probably other kids who also don’t understand.’ For kids who are less confident – but every bit as capable – the desire to ask a question can be shut down by, ‘Well if I’m the only one who needs to ask this, then I’m probably the only one who doesn’t understand it. I’ll wait and sort it out later by myself.’ They might not know the exact questions to ask (because they don’t know what they don’t know) so they will be vastly aware of the risk for confusion, misunderstanding and unwanted attention. A teacher who can work around a child’s reluctance to ask questions, by checking for understanding and checking that he or she is on the right track, will be all kinds of awesome.

  6. Ask them what they think. Their opinions will be wise, informed and deliberate. 

    Anxious kids will think carefully about everything they say before they say it – probably they’ll overthink it and will censor themselves from saying anything. They’ll never talk out of turn, say the wrong thing or upset anyone with their words. When they do speak, it will be wise and insightful. Just don’t assume that because they’re quiet, they have nothing to offer. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

  7. But they will need time to get their thoughts together.

    Invite them to contribute to a class discussion, but don’t ask them to go first. Wherever possible, give them the opportunity and the space to think things through. They’ll likely come back with an edge that will be surprising. Ask for their opinion or for what they think an answer might be, but make sure they’ve had time to collect their thoughts. It’s important not to make the mistake of assuming that because they’re not talking they don’t have anything to say. It’s the environment, the attention and the need to get it right that’s the issue, not their knowledge. The thought of speaking in a large group is likely to set their anxiety on fire. Even for the toughest of us, the thought of having to speak publicly can be one of the most nerve-racking experiences. It’s even worse for anxious kids. Just keep this in mind, but don’t overlook them. 

  8. And they’ll need to feel safe before they speak. 

    Anxious kids will always work best in smaller groups, particularly if they are with at least one other child they feel comfortable with and when there isn’t a strong personality running the show. The opportunity to get the best out of them will be wasted if they are with too many bigger personalities or too many people they don’t feel close too. Give them an opportunity to lead the discussion within the smaller group by being the note-taker (this will see them asking for clarification or opinions – so that what they’re writing down makes sense) or by being the one who reports back to the class on the group discussion (they’ll want to do a good job of this, as they do with everything, so they’ll make sure the discussion is a good one).

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  9. Get to know them. 

    Anxious kids tend to be warm and generous and with an enormous capacity to connect – but people will have to work to uncover it. Kids with anxiety will tend to run in the other direction to anything that’s unfamiliar, so the last thing they’ll do is initiate a connection or a conversation with someone they don’t feel close to, such as a teacher. It’s just too much expect children, particularly anxious ones, to feel comfortable reaching out for support or help from people they don’t have a rapport with. Give your child’s teacher some inside info he or she can use to start building a relationship with your child. Anything your child is interested in will be a good start – pets, sports, hobbies, big news (like a moving house or a new sibling). Ask the teacher if he or she can quietly – not in front of the entire class – strike up a conversation about one of these interests. It will mean a lot to your child to have a teacher who does this and it will start to build the connection that your child needs to feel safe enough to soar.

  10. Find ways to let them shine without the spotlight.

    Anxious kids will rarely welcome the spotlight in public. At home they can be little firecrackers – funny, kooky and crazy good fun – but in public it’s often a different story. There will always be those kids who revel in the spotlight like there’s nowhere else to be, and then there will be those who won’t. Both ways of being are normal and completely okay. Both types of kids have the potential to set the world on fire through their creativity, their passion, their courage and the way they inspire the people around them – but they’ll do it in very different ways.

    Anxious kids aren’t likely to put themselves forward for things. Let the teacher know this and ask the teacher to gently encourage your child to try different things that might give them the opportunity to shine, keeping in mind that they might not readily put themselves out there. Clue the teacher in on your child’s outside interests so that there’s a solid place to start – but don’t let it be the only place. That amazing human of yours might find a spark where he or she hasn’t even looked yet – the school play, the swimming squad, art club, hockey – who knows?

  11. Don’t force them to connect with unfamiliar people.

    Because of their sensitive and huge capacity for empathy, kids with anxiety will be great with people, but let them do it in their own time. Wherever they go, whether it’s to a new class, a new grade, or on camp, let them be with at least one person they are close to. The more the better. This will help them to feel safe and confident and these are the conditions under which you’ll be most likely to see them take flight. They’re not running for election so there’s just no need to force them to meet new people or to have new experiences on their own. They’ll hate it and they’ll be back to the beginning in terms of feel safe and confident enough to show themselves and everyone else what they’re capable of – and that would be such a waste. 

  12. Catch them if they’re performing less than their capability.

    Be aware that children with anxiety might often perform less than they’re capable of to avoid the ‘fuss’ that comes with getting the highest mark, the lead in the play, the captain of the sports team – even though they’re completely capable. Be sensitive to their need to avoid attention if that’s an issue for them. Ask your child’s teacher to praise your child privately when they do something well, but to be mindful that they might not want a public fuss made of them.

    If the teacher can have a little chat about this with your child and name this, it can help to shift it, ‘You would be [a great class leader/ awesome in the school play/ stellar in the cross country squad], but I notice you haven’t put yourself forward for [the role/ the part/ a place on the team]. Are you worried about having to speak on assembly/ that you’ll be in front of an audience/ that you’ll be with people you don’t know? I understand that can be scary. Let’s talk about that.’ 

And finally …

School shouldn’t be a test of extroversion or confidence. By making learning too self-directed too early, and expecting that all kids will be able to seek out clarification or understanding, we’re losing some of them. The spark that’s there in all of them is staying unlit. It’s a loss for them and it’s a loss for us. School is the launchpad into the real world, and the world is losing a lot of brilliance and potential by gearing towards the learning styles of the more confident and extroverted. 

All kids need certain things to be their best, but anxious kids who are quiet and ‘absolutely no trouble’, can be easily overlooked. All kids are different. The more you are able to share with your child’s teacher what works and what doesn’t work for your child, the more likely it is that the teacher can prepare the runway for him or her to fly. 

81 Comments

Belinda

This is such a relevant apostle at the moment for my 9 year old and I. But how do I discuss these ideas with her teacher? She has a lovely teacher this year with years of experience but I feel funny telling her how to adapt to my child.

Reply
elena

Hello,

Our son changed school in September, we have actually relocated and we live now in another country.
He is 7 years old and he was very happy and well integrated in his previous school. He had friends and connected very well with his teachers who loved him. However, the transition to a new school and country disturbed him quite a lot, he developed a severe school phobia. He’s been going through therapy ever since September, the school has been kind of supporting mostly in showing understanding and providing learning resources at home, but his teacher is unable or unwilling to connect with him, she doesn’t try to attract him and engage him in any way. She believes she should not give in to his fears and I should leave him at school to handle his emotions and get used to them. (which I disagree). Since end December he’s been going to school full time, but he needs me to be around all day to encourage him to go into the classroom, to be with him outside during recess time. Due to his difficulties, he hasn’t been able to make friendships, though he is a very kind and sociable child.
Lately other kids have started to mock him about needing his mum around, that he is weird- which of course troubles him a bit.
What would be his best reaction to these children?

I am also very unhappy with the teacher, who should be taking a more nurturing and understanding position in relationship with him, so he would let go of me and feel safer and understood at school.

Thank you for all your tips that may help this situation.

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Anne

What would you tecommend as the best approach for a 12 year old girl who is very defensive about discussing this? My daughter doesn’t want to be perceived as “different” and becomes very defensive when I try to discuss this/provide suggestions etc. Help!

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Felicity

Thank you so much for this article. This article explains all my feelings with anxiety in school and am glad there is an article that shows that I am not the only one. I have found the hardest thing to do in school is asking questions no matter how many times teachers say you can ask questions. When I have a question all of the anxiety comes.

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Katharine

This is such a great article, thank you. It is a spot on description of my daughter. She is only in Kindy, but already the comments we get from the teachers are that she is very attentive and well behaved but needs to put up her hand more and be involved. She is incredibly risk adverse and will actually avoid participating in any scenario she sees as competitive, to avoid being the winner or loser and having to deal with the feelings that come with that.

I know she will get there in the end, I wish I was better at supporting her though! I am kind of the opposite – I was always very confident at school and am a bit of a perfectionist. I (of course) want the best for my daughter, and am distressed to see her missing out by sitting out of things or not putting herself forward because she is anxious. A good example was this morning, it was Book Day at school where you dress as a character from a book. She always gets very anxious about these kinds of things, when anything other than the regular uniform and routine is required. Even though we had all the costume and props there for her chosen character she refused to wear them because she didn’t want people to think anything in particular about what she was dressed as. We end up clashing, as in the moment I can’t understand why she is being so stubborn about participating in things such as these, and I get all caught up in my own ideas of what she should be wearing!! It sounds pathetic I know, and with hindsight I can see my issues, but in the moment our differences result in a lot of tension.

I would be really grateful if you know of any resources for parents raising children with anxiety, or simply who are very different people to us, tools on how to support them when they are tackling the world in a way that is their own and not the way we would do it. I want to support her and nourish her developement and want to get less cross on a daily basis!!

Thanks again for the great article!

Reply
Karen Young

Katharine I’m so pleased the article was helpful for you. Anxiety can be so confusing, but the behaviour that comes with anxiety is one of two things – an attempt to manage the symptoms that come with anxiety (explained here https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/), or an attempt to avoid the situations that trigger the anxiety. Your daughter is waiting to feel safe at school, but I expect that when she does feel safe, she will surprise everybody. Her ‘stubborn-ness’ sounds like it is more around wanting to make sure that whatever she does, it isn’t going to bring her any attention she doesn’t want. This might be any attention at all. Her anxiety will be telling her that she needs to be careful. The more you push against this, the louder her anxiety will scream at her to hold steady and to avoid anything risky. This is an article that will help explain this in more detail https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-children-metaphor-put-shoes-right-beside/. There are loads of articles on this link https://www.heysigmund.com/category/with-kids/anxiety-in-kids-and-teens/, and resources here https://www.heysigmund.com/shop/ that will explain this in more detail. It can be difficult to know what to do when her behaviour doesn’t seem to make any sense, but hopefully the articles will help with this.

Reply
Katharine

Thank you so much! She has really turned a page in her confidence but these changes retain things are still triggers. These resources are super helpful, thank you!

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Poppy

Thank you your articles are very helpful. My 4 year old pre schooler is struggling at school with speaking to teacher and in groups. There approach is now to refuse to let her have fruit if she won’t say thank you or refuse to help her with her coat and not let her outside if she won’t ask for help. I’m am becoming frustrated and concerned this approach is making her anxiety worse. She is being punished for her shyness and fear of speaking out.

Reply
Karen Young

Oh Poppy it’s such a mistake to punish children for being shy or anxious. There is absolutely nothing wrong with either. She is so young and learning to trust the world. I understand the importance of encouraging manners and asking for help, but this has to happen through connection, not through shame and punishment. Her behaviour isn’t because she wants to cause trouble, and it’s not bad behaviour. She is learning about how the world works and for now, she is choosey about who she lets her guard down for. At the moment, there is no distinction for her between interacting with people and manners. That will come – there is plenty of time for that, but for now, the lesson is that the world is safe. A gentle, loving approach will nurture the right way to respond to the world much quicker than a punitive one.

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Poppy

Wow after one half term Into a new school new my daughter is like a different child. She loves school, is confident talking to friends and most adults. Puts her hand up to answer questions. Her new teachers have been amazing and understanding. No pressure just nurture. They gently support her if they sense the new activity is too much and they make small adjustments for example the teacher stood up with her in assembley to collect a certificate. Just shows finding the right approach for the individual can really help. I hope this is a newmlostive foundation for school life.
I also have an 8 year old with anxiety fight or flight problems and getting people to understand it’s not just ‘naughty ‘ behaviour is very hard. The support from this site is amazing. Thank you

Reply
Sean

Poppy, I would suggest that you read the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” written by Susan Cain.

Reply

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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