kids

"'Everything's going to be okay' is the worst thing you can say": Maggie Dent on anxious kids.

It's normal for children to feel anxious occasionally; it's part of being human. Our bodies have evolved to trigger these feelings so that we can detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

But what about when your child displays feelings of anxiety around non-threatening events, like going to school, or to sports training, or a birthday party? 

Mamamia's parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess, spoke to parenting educator and qualified counsellor Maggie Dent to find out some of the best strategies parents can adopt to help soothe their anxious child.

Watch: Clinical psychologist Amanda Gordon on talking to children about anxiety during the pandemic.


Video via Mamamia.

First, Maggie noted, it's important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy worries or anxiety.

There are four questions to ask that can help establish that. 

The first question is one that parents need to ask themselves:

Is the anxiety stopping my child from participating in life at the levels that we feel is to their advantage?

The other three questions are for their child:

Are you with an unsafe person? Are you in an unsafe place? Or are you about to do an unsafe thing?

This is about helping kids to understand that we all get anxious sometimes and that it can be an early warning system that what we're about to do is dangerous.

But if their worry is about something that isn't dangerous at all — say, anxiety about a music lesson because they are scared of making a mistake  — "we need to build a capacity and find their braveness so that they can overcome that," Maggie said.

Symptoms of anxiety in children. Image: Mamamia. Source: Beyond Blue.

ADVERTISEMENT

What not to do when your child is anxious.

"One of the things that's really interesting is that what we do as parents is the absolute opposite of what our kids need when they're anxious," she said.

"What we often say is, 'Oh, you'll be fine. Everything's gonna be okay.' That's the worst thing you can say." 

Why? Because it doesn't acknowledge their genuine worry or offer a solution.

Also to be avoided, Maggie said, is... well, avoidance. That is, giving in to their pleas, and not going to the event or completing the task.

Particularly if their anxiety appears to be rooted in fear of failure.

"Anxiety can come from perfectionism," she said. "We need to let our kids fail a lot. Because until you get over the fear of failure, it can really hold you back."

How to help when your child is anxious.

Maggie advises parents to validate their child's feelings, acknowledge they're finding the situation difficult, and work to overcome it together.

In her book, Parental as Anything, she uses the example of a child who is anxious about going to a peer's birthday party. Let's say they're at the door, but there's pleading, and leg-clutching, and tears. 

This is how Maggie would advise the parent to respond:

'I can see it's really hard for you right now and you're feeling a bit anxious. But we're just going to go in for five minutes, and I'm going to wait. And as soon as five minutes is up and you're ready to go, we'll head off.'

"A tiny exposure is really what we do in classical psychology," Maggie said. "And often once they're through the door and knowing that you're going to protect them and also head off with them if they don't like it, is enough for them to get in there and go, 'Oh, God. It's not that life-threatening after all.'"

ADVERTISEMENT

Encouraging them to participate in a safe activity, despite their worries, is crucial in building resilience in the long term. Maggie's own father did it for her when she was a child. She wasn't a fast runner and would worry about competing in races at school.

"He said to me, 'If it feels a bit yucky, I want you to wave at the crowd,' which I did a lot — and even fell over. But also, sometimes, I would hook up my arm with another girl who was coming last and couldn't run very well. But the second side to that — which turned the failure into something I could handle much more easily — was that he said to me, 'What I always want you to do is have a go.'

"That, I think, is one of the golden nuggets we want for our kids: to have a go even if you've got no chance of winning. Because participation is one of the attributes of resilient people. They just have a go."

For more from the interview with Maggie Dent, including how to help children cope with death and grief, listen to This Glorious Mess: Big Kids below or via your favourite podcast app.


The above is generalised advice only. If your child needs help for symptoms of anxiety, contact your GP or pediatrician. 

Feature Image: Getty.

Are you a mum to be or have little ones aged 5 or under? Take our survey for your chance to win one of four $50 gift vouchers.