I live in a troubled country. Without delving into politics and history, suffice it to say that my country is stuck in a long-lasting conflict which I wish we could resolve already. One of the symptoms of this conflict is that every now and then we are attacked by rockets. Some areas have it really often, some less. But whenever the situation heats up, the stress levels all around are rising as well.
And that’s exactly what happened last week. Right at the end of the weekend things flared up again to the rate of hundreds of rockets in a couple of days. So it’s only natural that I got to thinking about how should you communicate with your children about stress and anxiety.
In this post, I’ll show you 5 things that parents sometimes say to kids when they are anxious and stressed. 5 wrong things to say to your children, and I’ll show you why they are wrong, and what are the alternatives. And please note – these are relevant for any stressful situation.
Even if you live in a peaceful country with no rocket threats or something of the sort, stress and anxiety are just parts of life. Those sentences are as relevant to a child who is afraid of dogs or high places as well as a child who is anxious about the next school shooting attack.
There's Nothing To Worry About
I think that’s one of the most common things parents say to their kids. Whatever the stressful situation is, that’s just what automatically think about.
And there’s a good reason for that. By telling our kids that there’s nothing to worry about, we are kind of telling ourselves the same thing. You see, usually, we are trying to calm ourselves when we try to calm our kids.
Being calm when your child is anxious is actually a good thing. If you are stressed yourself, you will have a harder time being there for your child and calming him or her. So what’s so wrong about saying something like that to calm both you and your child?
The problem with this sentence is that it’s usually just wrong. The truth is that there’s a lot to worry about, and by telling our kids that there’s nothing to worry about we are invalidating his or her view of the world.
Let’s take a simple example. You take your child to the playground and she starts to climb a tall ladder to get to the slide. But as she reaches the top she gets really scared. Maybe she’s weeping, maybe she’s asking you to take her and bring her down. You can see that she’s stressed.
If you say to her “There’s nothing to worry about” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of”, you’d be flat out lying, won’t you? She’s in a dangerous position, objectively. If she’ll fall, she’ll hurt herself. Telling her that her fear is unjustified does two problematic things. First, it’s just confusing her and making her doubt her own instincts. Second, it leaves her alone with her sensations and feelings of fear.
What to do instead?
Instead of telling your child that there’s nothing to fear or worry about, you could validate that fear. By saying “You’re feeling scared because this is a high spot and you’re unsure if you could come down” you are sending your child several important messages:
- You show her that you see her emotions and understand them
- You are naming her emotions for her (“scared”, in this example) – remember that children need to learn how to speak “emotionese”.
- You are showing her that you are with her, and can handle her feelings.
Of course, you should not just live it at that. After validating her emotions, you can reassure her by saying “But I’m right here to keep you safe. I’m watching you and would not let you fall”.
Don't Be Such a [Sissy/Baby/Little Girl]
I got to admit – this just makes me angry. Whenever I hear a parent (usually a dad) say something of the sort to his child (usually a boy), I get tense. I just feel like walking and ask that parent “What the hell dude??” (which, of course, I don’t do).
For some reason, we are associating being scared, stressed or anxious with being a baby or being a little girl. Why is that? And why are we still doing this in the 21st century?
Anyway, this is not something you want to tell your child because it’s just not helpful. I won’t make your child suddenly less anxious. It won’t make your kid – boy or girl – to suddenly “man up”.
The only effect you get by telling your child to stop being a sissy or a little baby is shaming your child. And believe me, if you care about your children, shame is really not something you want to evoke in them. If you don’t understand why, read my post about the difference between shame and guilt. But suffice it to say that shame is a toxic feeling that seeps its way into your child’s sense of self and erodes it from the inside.
What to do instead?
Well, first – just don’t say it. Even you think it, or feel it in your bones – notice it, take a breath and refrain from saying it. Then, just like the previous example, try to validate your child’s feelings and give him or her the message that you are there for them.
Example: “I see that it’s hard for you. You are feeling really stressed and don’t know what to do about it. That’s OK, let me help you with it”.
This would also be a good way to practice some relaxation methods. My SAFER Formula Cheat Sheet could be of use in these moments. If you don’t have it, feel free to get it free right here.
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Just Stop Worrying / Just Relax
We don’t like watching our kids when they are stressed and anxious. As parents, we took on ourselves the responsibility to take care of them and keep them safe. Seeing them in a difficult position, feeling helpless and hopeless is really painful. No wonder we want it to stop as soon as possible.
But asking (or telling) our kids to “just stop worrying” is futile. Think about yourself for a second – can you stop yourself from worrying just like that? When you are feeling stressed, anxious or angry – can you just “turn it off” as those dudes from Book of Mormon asks us to do?
Asking our kids to just “stop it” will not work, and will leave them alone with their feelings, unable to change anything and feeling like they’ve done something wrong.
What to do instead?
You may already know what I’m gonna offer, right? Instead of telling your child to just chill, relax or stop worrying – validate those feelings! They are probably worrying for a reason! They can’t just switch it off.
It’s true that your child’s worries may be unrealistic. If my child was worried about getting involved in a rocket attack – that would be a realistic thing to worry about unless we were to live in a peaceful place without that history.
But him worrying about a bear attack? Not so realistic. If he were to worry about that, I would validate that worry by saying “Wow, I see that you are so worried about bear attacks! And, well, bears can be dangerous at times!”. But then I would add a reality-check, such as “But you know, where we live there are literally no bears around”.
And what about rocket scares? I did say they were realistic for us. So, again, I would validate that feeling, but then I would offer some relaxing thoughts such as stating that we live quite far from the immediate danger zone or that the military is doing its job by countering those rockets mid-air, etc.
Using a Worry Box
Here’s a nice trick for working with excess worry. You can create a Worry Box, which is simply a box – like a shoe box or something of the sort – where your child can store his or her worries. Whenever he has a worry, tell him to write it down or draw it, and put it in the box. Another option would be to make a Worry Notebook, by using a notebook instead of a box.
By using a worry box you are helping your child to externalize his or her worries and stressful thoughts. You can have a little ceremony where every evening you take the notes out of the box, read them together and explain why they are just worries, then toss them to the garbage.
Look at Your (Sister/Brother/Friend), They are Brave
Children tend to be really competitive. They see how we, the adults, tend to compare things, and they have the same tendency themselves. They are constantly busy with who is better or worse in this or in that. Some kids develop this into downright competitiveness in sports or other fields, some don’t.
If you were to look at your children in a stressful situation and notice that some of them react better to the stress, you may want to tell your anxious child something like “Look at your brother, he’s not as anxious as you are, learn from him!”, or you may say something nastier like “Why can’t you be brave like your sister?”
Those saying are just not fair. Each child has his or her own tolerance to stress. Each child has a different way to handle stress and tackle anxiety. Even kids who grow up together, in the same family, react differently. You know what? Even twin may react totally different to those situations.
So, those comparisons are just useless. And as you may guess – they can hurt your child by letting him feel alone with those feelings, inadequate and weak in comparison to his or her siblings.
What to do instead?
If one of your children is anxious and the other isn’t – that’s great! You have only one kid to calm down! Help your stressed kid – but don’t neglect the other one and check up on him all the time. You can ask the calmer one to help if that’s possible. For example, engage them both in a game.
A word about being brave
Sometimes I hear parents tell their kids to “be brave, don’t be scared”. But being brave doesn’t mean “not being afraid”. On the contrary – it means you are afraid, but you have the mental strength to hold and endure the fear and act in spite of it.
So, use the word brave, but use it correctly. Tell your child that it’s perfectly OK to be scared because those who are brave are really scared – it just doesn’t mean they don’t do what they want to do.
Stop That! You’re Stressing me Out!
Before writing this post, I asked around on Twitter what kind of things people heard from their parents in stressful situations. One answer that stood out was this: “Stop being like that! You are stressing me out!” or “Soon I’ll start crying or screaming myself!”
This response can come from two reasons. One reason you might say this is that you think it will make your child calm down. Maybe your child will not want you to feel bad so he’ll stop?
Well, it won’t do the trick. Your child can’t just stop whatever he or she is feeling, even if they really want to. What they may do is suppress those feelings and push them away, but the stress will still run through their veins and affect their mind and soul.
By telling them that they are stressing you out, you are actually reversing the roles and asking them to take care of you, instead of the way it should be.
The second reason for you to say to your child that he’s stressing you out is that it’s actually true. When our kids are anxious, stressed and helpless, it usually pushes on some of our most hurtful buttons. You see your daughter anxious and worried and it evokes stress in yourself, that may be tied to past experiences when you were stressed as well.
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Now, just as you can’t ask yourself to stop feeling stress, I can’t ask you to stop feeling it yourself. However, in the parent-child dyad, YOU are the grown one. John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory, is known to have said that kids get safety by connecting to an “older and wiser” attachment figure. And that, my friends, is you.
However, if you really are stressed when your child is, you should – and can – do something about it. By taking care of yourself you will be in a better position to help your child. It’s just like we are instructed before the flights to first put oxygen masks on ourselves and then on our kids.
Do what you need to do in order to cope better with your own stress: Going to therapy, using mindfulness exercises or learning some relaxation methods are some examples I suggest. If you want to know more about using mindfulness as a parent, feel free to download my Mindfulness Exercises Guide right here.
As parents, we inevitably see our kids going through stress and anxiety. It’s just part of life. And while we do our best to help our kids manage their anxiety and deal with stress, we sometimes do so in such a way that doesn’t really help.
Saying things like “There’s nothing to worry about” or “Just relax” or “Don’t be such a baby!” are not helping your child deal with the situation, and may also harm your connection. By learning to identify those problematic sayings, and preparing others, you’d be in a better position to help your child.
If you found this helpful, please share it with your friends and family, so they can also be better prepared to help their child. And please share in the comments how YOU help your children during stressful times, so we could all learn from each other.
Featured Image by Kat Jayne