By: Esther Pransky, Lubicom Marketing Staff
There’s a lot to be anxious about right now: health, money, change in routine, world stability, and more.
We’re all feeling the tension, and our children, even if they can’t verbalize it, are feeling it, too. It’s hard enough dealing with our own emotions. How can we help our children with theirs?
We reached out to Dr. Aaron Feldman, a licensed psychologist with 20 years of experience in treating anxiety disorders, for some guidance. He responded with practical advice that can help us help our children now and in the future.
Recognizing Anxiety in Children
The first step is to identify a possible problem. While some children may openly express their worries, others keep it inside. How can we recognize our children’s unspoken anxiety? Any change in normal behavior can be a red flag, and Dr. Feldman added some standard warning signs such as:
- Trouble concentrating
- Muscle tension (sometimes you can feel it if you put your hand on a child’s shoulder)
- Trouble sleeping
Still, even if you have good reason to believe that your child is anxious, she may not want to talk about it. You definitely DON’T want to have a one-sided conversation where you ask leading questions, and your child gives one-syllable answers.
Many children aren’t comfortable with direct, face-to-face conversations. But they’ll often bring up difficult topics when a parent is slightly distracted, such as when driving in a car. Some children like to start conversations in the safety of the quiet, dim moments when a parent is saying “shema” with them in bed.
It’s important to stay open to talking at those kinds of times (even if the child may also be trying to stall going to sleep!) Make sure to ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions. For example, “How do you feel about school closing?” instead of “Are you nervous about doing your schoolwork at home?”
The Core Principles
So, you’ve identified that your child is anxious. What next?
“When faced with a child who expresses anxiety, our instincts often result in choosing the wrong approach,” Dr. Feldman explained. “Let’s say your child gets scared. To help them, you’ll spend time reassuring them, telling them everything’s okay, and they’re safe. You’re trying to remove the anxiety and convince them that everything’s okay.”
But your goal SHOULDN’T be to help them get rid of the anxiety; it should be to help them manage it. That distinction is the key to successfully dealing with anxiety. Practically speaking, it means:
1. Calmly, but sympathetically acknowledge the anxiety
2. Let the child know you’re sorry that they’re suffering
3. Express confidence that the child can handle it
“I always say that our kids inherently know that if we really thought they were in danger, there’s no wall that we wouldn’t try to walk through to protect them. So, when we say, ‘I can see that you’re anxious, I’m so sorry, but I’m not worried. I’m confident you can handle it,’ they may get irritated and frustrated because they want us to make them feel better. But on a certain gut, visceral level, they know that we wouldn’t walk away if they were really endangered.”
By taking this approach, you’re teaching your children that the presence of anxiety doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. And that confidence opens the door for the child to learn how to handle it.
The paradox of anxiety is that to get rid of it, you must first accept it.
Stocking the Toolbox
Once we accept the anxiety, how do we teach our children to handle it? Dr. Feldman shared some tools:
- Answer the “what if” questions – An anxious child (or adult!) will often ask “what if?” What if Daddy gets sick? What if Bubby falls when she’s alone in her house?
“Our gut reaction is to reassure the child that no, don’t worry, that won’t happen. We very rarely answer the question,” Dr. Feldman pointed out. But answering the “what if” teaches the child to answer it himself and lower his anxiety.
- Ask if you’re overestimating the likelihood of such an event occurring – Most of the time when we’re anxious, we’re highly inflating the probability of this event happening. Teaching a child to recognize that can help lower anxiety. But sometimes it doesn’t, and then the opposite question might help.
- Ask if the worst-case scenario actually happened, could I handle it? – Very often, we overestimate the danger and underestimate our coping mechanisms. We just think, “Oh, no. If I fail a test, it would be a disaster.” Teach your child to think it through, to see how he could and would cope.
- Compliment your child on their coping mechanisms – If your child tells you that they’re nervous and miserable, focus on building them up. Say, “Wow, but you still did your work/davened/kept it together. I’m so sorry that you’re miserable, but I’m impressed with how you’re handling it.”
Dealing with COVID19
The coronavirus pandemic brings unique challenges and anxieties.
Dr. Feldman stressed that it’s crucial for parents to work on their own anxieties first. Be careful what you say and when you say it. With your kids home all day, they can hear your phone conversations…even from another room.
It’s also important to strike a balance between too much and too little virus-related talk. Too much, and you create an atmosphere of fear and tension. You need to have normal conversations like, “How are your classes going?” or “Is Zoom working out?” But completely avoiding the topic can make it seem too terrible to talk about, and that’s not healthy either.
As a parent, you know your children best and can gauge how much information each one can handle.
Applying the Principles to Coronavirus
If your child has fears surrounding the virus, you can deal with them based on the principles that Dr. Feldman outlined:
1. Acknowledge the anxiety as real. Let your child know that you, too, are worried, and that’s a normal emotion.
2. Express your confidence that the child can handle these emotions.
3. Explain to your child the steps that you’re taking to stay safe. Don’t give false assurances, but you can explain that these safety steps reduce the likelihood of contracting the virus. Most of the people who got sick caught it before they knew how to protect themselves.
4. Acknowledge when you see the child handle something well despite his anxiety.
5. Allow your children to grieve if your family experienced a close loss. Validate and empathize with their feelings.
For a child who was already prone to anxiety, understand that he is going to be more impacted. Recognize that it’s going to be harder for this child. “I think that if we get annoyed when it happens, then we don’t access our best parenting,” Dr. Feldman explained. “Instead, help them see this as an experience that led them to get better at dealing with their anxiety.”
Money, Money, Money
Besides worries about health and school, COVID19 brings financial concerns, too. Children will realize the ramifications of a parent losing a job or a business and may be worried about it.
While the basic principles Dr. Feldman outlined still apply to children’s money worries, he does differentiate in one way. Children rely on their parents to provide them with shelter, food, and clothing. You don’t want to take away that security and make them feel as if it’s their responsibility.
So, you can still acknowledge and normalize the emotion. You can still express confidence in their ability to handle it. But you don’t go through the “what ifs.” Instead, you tell them, “Daddy and I are going to figure this out. You don’t have to worry about it.”
And be CAREFUL with what you talk about in front of the children.
Eventually, the COVID19 pandemic will end. How can we make sure that our children don’t suffer lasting effects from their anxieties?
Dr. Feldman said that the key is to create an environment where you help your children recognize that they’re handling the situation. Help them frame their coping as “wins” even when they don’t feel that way to them. (“Wow, honey, I know it’s hard to be home all day, and you get frustrated, but you’re doing a great job of dealing with it.”)
In fact, Dr. Feldman is hopeful about the future. “I think that it’s not going to have a lasting negative effect. I think that many kids are going to have built resilience because adversity can make you stronger. It can show you where sometimes you’re weak, and that doesn’t feel so good. But ultimately, we know that it does make people stronger, and kids are way more resilient than we think.”
Let’s help our kids (and ourselves!) build that resiliency.
Dr. Aaron Feldman specializes in anxiety disorders, parenting issues, ADHD in children and adults, couples and marriage counseling, and domestic violence. He is an entertaining and informative speaker and provides workshops and trainings for parents, teachers, couples, community organizations, and other mental health professionals. To book a workshop or a consultation, reach out to Dr. Feldman at 770-980-9229 ext. 322.