5 Things You Should Never Say to an Anxious Child

I wanted to sleep with a bat under my pillow. It was plastic; nonetheless, it was a weapon. I was 5 years old, and I firmly believed that each night when I went to sleep, a robber would break into the house. I needed something to defend myself (and maybe my family), and my brother’s yellow Wiffle ball bat seemed ideal. Unfortunately, my parents never complied with my request.

They didn’t understand why I was so worried. After all, there was no logical evidence to support my anxiety: our neighborhood was safe, we had never experienced a break-in, and we had a security alarm to alert us of any danger. But who said anxiety was logical? It’s generally not. Actually, let’s back up. Who said what I was experiencing was “anxiety”?

Anxiety is a word that I use now, based on personal and professional hindsight. Back then, as far as my parents and I were concerned, I was simply prone to a bit of extra worry. None of us understood that my fearful thoughts were actually provoking a real nervous system response.

So how did my loving parents deal with my countless “what if” questions? “What if we get robbed?” “What if we forget to turn the alarm on?” “What if we leave the door unlocked?” “What if the robber finds my room?” How did they handle it when I knocked on their door at two o’clock in the morning, asking to go downstairs to check the lock once more for good measure?

My parents’ first line of defense was always reassurance. The next strategy involved invoking my logic. When all else failed, which it often did, they (understandably) became frustrated and sometimes expressed it.

Please know that my parents are amazing. They always supported me, but they didn’t really understand what I was going through at the time. It took me a couple of decades to figure it out and to find ways to help alleviate my worries.

To help other families going through something similar, I want to point out five phrases that were said to me out of great love yet were unable to help me when I was in the throes of anxiety. Knowing what I know now, I’ll also tell you what I wish I could’ve expressed to my parents. Finally, I’ll present some alternative ways to help a child experiencing anxiety. Here’s that list:

1. Mommy said, “It’s going to be OK. Trust me.”

I wish I could have said, “Mommy, I know you’re trying to make me feel better, but my mind is telling me the opposite: ‘It’s NOT going to be OK.’ And my body seems to be responding to my mind. My heart is racing, my palms are sweating, and my tummy feels funny. It’s hard for your loving words to overpower what’s happening inside of me.”

Here’s what we know: The stress response is hardwired into our nervous system as a protective mechanism devised to enact the fight-or-flight reaction to threats. Anxiety mimics this response. As such, when your child is knee-deep in anxiety, a rapid stream of chemicals is dumped into the body for survival. This makes it difficult to think clearly and, subsequently, for words of reassurance to sink in.

Try this: Respond to your child’s nervous system first. Help them calm down with deep breathing. This can take the mind and body from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest mode.

2. Daddy said, “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

I wish I could have said, “Daddy, remember the first time you asked mommy out on a date? Remember your first day at a new job? Or remember the time when you got in that bike accident? Maybe your parents knew everything was going to be OK, too, but you didn’t know that. You experienced real fear. My fear is real, too.”

Here’s what we know: Research shows anxiety initiates a fear alarm inside your child’s mind and body. It’s a false alarm, but nevertheless, it feels very real. That alarm is for protection; your child feels “stress” or “fear” in order to survive. To make sure one is really paying attention, the mind might even exaggerate the object of the worry (e.g., mistaking a stick for a snake).

Try this: Validate your child’s emotions. You can say, “I see that you’re scared. I’ve been scared before, too, and I know what that feels like.”

3. Mommy said, “Let me tell you all the reasons you don’t have to worry.”

I wish I could have said, “Mommy, I know that what you’re saying makes sense. It’s just that it’s hard to think clearly and logically in this moment. I have a lot of feelings right now and I’m just focusing on those. It’s just really hard to think clearly.”

Here’s what we know: Studies show one by-product of the anxiety response is that the prefrontal cortex — the more logical part of the brain — gets put on hold while the more automated emotional brain takes over. After all, cave people didn’t have a lot of time to use logic when it came to running away or fighting a predator.

Try this: Soothe the nervous system with a visualization exercise. Ask your child to envision a still, quiet place. Ask them to breathe in and out in a way that’s comfortable and to describe this place to you. Once your child is calm, discuss the idea that feelings are not necessarily facts. Feelings can be challenged by saying, “Hey, I don’t think you’re really true!” Self-disputation is a great way to quell worry.

4. Daddy shouted, “STOP BEING SUCH A WORRIER!”

I wish I could have said, “Daddy, I know that you’re frustrated and even angry. This makes me feel so bad because I want to stop being a worrier; I really do. I want it to stop, but I just don’t know how. I wish I knew how.”

Here’s what we know: Kids who worry know that they worry more than others because they are labeled as “worriers” from a young age. They also compare themselves to others who have less anxious reactions to the same fears. In fact, many kids develop anxiety about having anxiety. Add on a dose of guilt from parents, and kids can feel completely miserable. Remember, kids often feel as helpless as adults do when it comes to chronic worry.

Try this: To the best of your ability, do not label your child. Instead, when they’re in a relaxed state, explain the evolutionary basis of worry. Seriously? Yes! Kids love to know that worry has a purpose and that everyone worries to some extent. You can use this infographic to guide your explanation.

5. Mommy and daddy said, “We don’t understand why you’re so worried.”

I wish I could have said, “I know you don’t understand, but I need you to try. I need you to try to understand what I’m going through. Put your hand on my racing heart, listen to my shallow breath, look at me… this is real. I want you to understand. I need you to understand. Please tell me you get it. Please.”

Here’s what we know: When a child is anxious, they feel scared and helpless. If you also feel helpless as a parent, empathy can help guide your actions. By stepping into your child’s shoes and understanding their feelings and perspectives, your reaction to their needs will be more authentic and in line with their needs.

Try this: When your child feels anxious, try to recall a time when you felt true fear. Then connect with your child using these three words: “I get it.” Let your child know that you see that they are going through something challenging. Let your child know that you really see them.

On a final note, I wanted to say something to my parents and to all parents on behalf of anxious children: “We, too, get it. We understand what you sacrifice for us. We know that our pain and struggle become your own. We know that even on the days you feel completely helpless, you still try to support us — and you do. By never losing faith and never giving up, you are our models of grit and perseverance. Thank you.”

Try this: Get 9 more powerful tips on how to help your anxious child through our one-hour FREE masterclass available for the next few weeks at multiple times.

In this class you will learn:

  • 9 powerful techniques that can bring your child from chronic worry to inner peace.
  • Understand how the things you’re doing – even with love and compassion – can actually make your child’s anxiety worse.
  • Discover how to “talk” to your child’s anxious body.
  • Go beyond articles and books to really understand how to apply techniques that will work for your child “in the moment” of panic or anxiety.
  • Learn how to not get triggered when dealing with a chronically worried child.
  • Implement action steps to calm anxiety that has transformed into explosive anger.

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15 thoughts on “5 Things You Should Never Say to an Anxious Child”

  1. Thank you for this information. My son is 11 and is having an issue with anxiety almost daily. I think I make things worse by how I react to him. I will definately try these techniques!

  2. I posted this on my FB page, and a friend responded with this, which I think is spot on: ” I wish it were framed differently. There are so many articles labeled “parents:don’t EVER do this!” And it ends up feeling like one more example of how impossible it is to be a good parent. I’d love to see it titled something more like “need help parenting an anxious child? Here are some strategies”

  3. I am a preschool teacher, and I think that these strategies will be very helpful in the classroom, especially at the beginning of the year when a lot of the kids are dealing with separation anxiety. I’m definitely going to take that master class, and share this article with my colleagues.

  4. Thank you. I really needed this. I do most of these things and my kids have only gotten more scared of bugs. I’ve been searching for what to do. May your suggestions work for us!

  5. Thanks, Lucy! Fits our birth family sooo well. Just found out that I have had PTSD since
    elementary school. Ugh — finally getting treatment. Hang in there and know you are
    understood and loved!!

  6. I’m the frustrated dad in this scenario but I take comfort in the fact that we do do the deep breathing exercises together and it helps indeed. As for the evolutionary theory we tried that but it didn’t work. Have you thought of creating a YouTube video of yourself, talking to your 8 year old self to provide this advice, in a way a child can relate to? I know I would love to show this and discuss it with my daughter.
    Thank you and we’ll check the class

  7. Thank you , I was an anxious child. I raised an anxious child. Now that anxious child is raising an anxious child that acts out in anger. This will help.

  8. Thank you
    I am still experiencing anxiety and I am on my early 40s, but my 9 year daughter is going thru it also and it breaks my heart.I know exactly how she feels and I wish I could push that button and stop that “worry” that she has if her dog her dad her mom and her sister die.I will definitely use this information even though breathing Techniques don’t really work for her.(she thinks she can’t slow down the breathing )

  9. I am dealing with anxiety and depression and suicidal feelings and thoughts reading this helped me talk to my parents about it thx!:) ▬▬▬▬▬▬►
    ╝╚╝╚╝  ╩     ╩ ❕

  10. Thank you for sharing this. My son is 7 and says he knows a robber is going to break in and we have set up every escape plan we can think of for him. It is nice to hear what would be his perspective.

  11. Thank you I have said for along time my 8yr old daughter has anxiety and its getting to the point she won’t sleep for more then 2hrs with out coming in to us she fears of missing out and is always worried about someone coming in to the house to hurt us iv tryed everything but what I read will help me help her thank you so much


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