Anxiety is the sometimes screaming, sometimes whispered nagging voice inside your head that tells you everything you do or have done is wrong. Anxiety is the palm-sweating, stomach-rumbling, heart-racing worry machine that takes control of your body. Anxiety feels like impending death. If you know anxiety, and your child is anxious, everything in you wants to protect your child from it so you'll accept any advice to stop your child's anxiety. However, there are some pieces of "advice" every mom with an anxious kid dreads hearing, too. After all, someone else's best of intentions will only get you so far.
Sometimes, and unfortunately, in our rush to protect our children in the moment, we can hurt their emotional intelligence long term. For example, when we try to use strategies that wouldn't work with us, we forget how frustrating that can be. Phrases like, "There's nothing to worry about," or, "Everything is fine." might be "easy" to say in the moment, but do very little to quell your child's anxiety. And when we say things like, "If you're worried about the dark room, just don't go in there," we teach them to avoid or distract from their emotional experience, rather than feel through it.
Of course I want to help my child feel better. I hate to see him in pain, whether it be physical or emotional. However, in my urgency to help him in the moment and as soon as possible, I sometimes lose sight of what my long term goals are for him, namely: independence, kindness, and emotional intelligence. All of these goals can be negatively impacted by taking the hastily given advice of strangers about how to help my child's anxiety. I've gotten so much advice over the years that I've started to dread the kind-eyed, open-mouthed approach of a well-intentioned person. Sometimes sharing dread helps lessen the experience of dread, and increases the ability to let it go.
When someone tells you to "just relax," does it work? Has it ever worked in the history of the humanity? No.
So, it stands to reason that it probably will not work for the parent of an anxious child, either. Or, for that matter, the child.
"Your Kid Senses Your Own Anxiety"
Look, I know he sense my anxiety. This would actually be really sound advice if it was followed by, "Here's this amazing book that helps parents so much! It's called Parenting from the Inside Out."
Just please know it matters when, how, and where you offer resources. The same resource can be offered in ways that make a parent feel supported and in ways that make a parent feel judged. When I'm anxious or feeling guilty about how my emotional state contributes to my child's? Yeah, not the greatest time to offer resources. Save it for when we're calmly debriefing after the anxiety has passed.
"Don't Let Your Kid See You Afraid"
This one is kind of a mixed bag. We do need to show our children we have confidence in them so they can have confidence in themselves. However, I've also found that there is a place for allowing your children to see that you are a real human being, too. You also have big emotions. Their big emotions don't make them bad because their mama isn't bad and she has big emotions, too.
The key to making this teachable is that when you show your kiddo that you're afraid, you also show them the successful resolution of that fear. Whether that means showing them how you sit calmly with uncertainty or showing them how you dramatically vanquish the boogeyman before bedtime.
"Just Teach Your Kid Some Strategies"
It's really easy for parents of anxious kids to get into the space of trying to "figure it out" in the moment their child is anxious. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to figure something out, but when your child is having a panic attack is not the time to use your pre-frontal cortex (the linear thinking/decision-making part of the brain).
The best time to come up with these strategies or teach them to your anxious child is in moments of calm. When you do this, the next time they're anxious they will have a toolbox to pull from.
Anxious brains are not learning brains. Instead, they're surviving brains.
"You Need To Set Boundaries"
When someone tells me I need to set boundaries with my anxious kid do you know what I hear? I'll tell you.
"What a crappy parent you are! Don't you know kids need boundaries? You must run a crazy-free-for-all house over there! My goodness you never should have had kids in the first place."
"Have You Tried Reassuring Them?"
Constant reassurance does not work with anxious kids. As previously mentioned, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes decisions) is all but offline when anxiety is present. Reassurance works on that part of the brain, not on the part of the brain that is online during anxiety. (Spoiler alert: it's the lizard brain, also known as the survival-center)
"They Need To Face Their Fears"
The thing about facing fears is that, in kids with generalized anxiety, it can potentially make matters worse. There is a time and a place for practicing bravery, and those times and places are different for every kid.
When it comes to this particular piece of advice, I've realized it's usually said by someone whose schedule is inconvenienced by my child's anxiety. I'm sorry that you had hoped drawing a 5 year old's blood for the first time was only going to take 30 seconds. However, I don't force my child into medical trauma, OK? It's not a medical emergency and his fear exists for a reason. We're going to go ahead and work with him through this situation, not forcefully hold his arms down so you can suck his blood and go to lunch.
"You Should Try Medication"
Medication may or may not be right for such a young child. This is not a decision that should be made lightly. How about I talk to his treatment providers about it, and you focus on dislodging the foot from your mouth?
"Maybe You Should Consider How Their Siblings Play A Role"
Research does tell us that siblings of autistic kids have a slightly greater chance of developing an anxiety disorder. But how is this advice, really?
When someone says my son's anxiety may be a result of his autistic sister, I'm not sure what solution they're offering. I certainly can't change that his sister is autistic. And since my particular children love blaming anything and everything on one another, it's definitely not helpful to give my son that sort of ammunition.
"It's Probably Something You Did When You Were Pregnant"
I'm incredibly frustrated by the litany of blaming pregnant people for absolutely everything under the sun based on something they may or may not have done during pregnancy.
First of all, it's not actually advice, is it? Can I go back in time and not eat that fifth bowl of sugar cereal during my sixth month of pregnancy, to prevent my son's future anxiety? No.
Second of all, it does not prove anything that your brother's wife's sister's cousin ate caviar during pregnancy and now her child has anxiety. Anecdotal evidence is nice for family lore, but it is not actionable.
It's much more likely that our society's intense focus on what a pregnant person eats, thinks, and drinks exacerbates any pre-existing stress in said pregnant person, thus reducing their ability to effectively manage their own anxiety. People who have difficulty managing their own anxiety have difficulty modeling and teaching their children how to manage anxiety (see above). So let's stop focusing on what parents may or may not have done during pregnancy to cause anxiety, and start focusing on how to help them nurture an anxious child now. OK? Great.