Conquering Anxiety with Character Strengths

Contributed by proud mother and writer, Kelly Harbaugh.

When you have a child who suffers from anxiety, there is a great focus on what they cannot do. Finding an area in which your child excels can be a key to unlocking confidence. Every child has at least one area of special talent, and you can help them to succeed by finding it.

This was definitely the case for my daughter, who had selective mutism as a young child. Selective mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder in which a child fails to speak in specific social situations. This means that the child may speak easily and fluently at home but freeze up and become silent at school, daycare, or other social places.

It’s not easy to be known as “the child who doesn’t talk.”

People often misunderstand the problem and think that a selectively mute child is not as bright or talented as other children. This is very frustrating for the parent, who usually sees the child full personality at home and knows what she is capable of doing.

My husband and I knew that our daughter had a lot of potential. We were concerned about pushing our child to participate in activities that might make her uncomfortable; however, we also wanted to find the right social situations that would slowly increase her ability to interact with others.

Friends of ours had a daughter with SM who found her social ease by taking dance classes. They said that when their little girl walked onto the stage for a recital, her anxiety melted away.  She smiled and performed with unbelievable confidence. They were amazed, and they knew that they had found something essential to her development.

I always dreamed of taking dance classes as a child, so I thought that this might be perfect for my daughter.  Her best friend was starting a class, so I thought that she would be eager to go along.  I was wrong.  She had absolutely no interest in such an activity.

“I just like ball games,” she would say.

So we tried sports.

This seemed like a very strange choice to me. I hated the pressure of competitive sports when I was in school, and I imagined that it would be even worse for someone who had anxiety issues.

My daughter was oblivious to the fact that she was supposed to be nervous about competition. In fact, under that soft, quiet personality was a strong, competitive spirit.

She did not start out as a great athlete.  It took a couple of years for her athletic ability to catch up with her desire to play, but she was determined to play well, and her coaches took notice.

“She might not talk to you,” one of them explained, “but she sure does listen to whatever you tell her to do.”

Over time, she evolved from a tiny, timid basketball player to a leading point-scorer. I had to laugh during one game when I heard a parent from the opposing team yell that they needed to keep the ball away from her.

She has also become a talented softball pitcher. My stomach was full of butterflies when she pitched her first inning; but then she struck out two players and threw another out at first to end the inning without allowing a single run.

Competitive sports won’t be the answer to every child’s anxiety problem.

It could be dance, music, art, or anything else that makes her feel like a “winner.” Here are some suggestions to help you discover and develop your child’s passion:

  • Take the time to observe what your child enjoys doing. Expose her to lots of options, and see how she reacts. It might take a little bit of trial and error to find the right activity, but the results will be very rewarding.
  • When you find that area of talent, let her soak in it. Give her as much time, resources, and instruction that you are able to.  Become her biggest fan.
  • Finally, be patient with the results.  In the beginning, you might see a lot of desire paired with very little skill. However, a child who has the right amount of desire will eventually develop skill.

Help your child find a place where they are a winner, and it will spill out into other activities. The confidence your child will gain through their accomplishments will be a valuable gift that they will carry through the rest of their life.

Hello, humanoid! As you may know, the community blog contains true stories contributed to the GoZen! site. The Earthly people of law have asked me to remind you these stories are not to be construed as medical advice. Instead, if you have a child suffering from anxiety, we hope you are inspired and empowered by the journey and healing of others. If you would like to contribute a story to inspire others, please send it in here!

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5 thoughts on “Conquering Anxiety with Character Strengths”

  1. Kelly – bravo! Thank you for sharing. I have to share a clip of my story after reading this…

    As a child, I suffered with severe anxiety which grew into agoraphobia. Looking back, as an adult and a parent, there were some things my parents did right, but also some things I wish they knew to do in addition. One of the things they did well, was encourage me in swimming. I was competitive with myself and beating my old times. Despite my love of music and playing the piano, though, it was not helpful for them to push me into performance and make me feel bad for “wasting their money.”

    Being afraid to open doors because I didn’t know what was on the other side really hindered my social life, my education, and my emotional growth. Having parents who knew how to take the time to talk to me would have helped immensely. I have learned to ask questions. To gently probe and identify exactly what is hindering my child in their anxious moments. Hearing my parents say “There is nothing on the other side of that door that you can’t handle” would have been affirming and encouraging.

    Learning how to assist my child without becoming their crutch is a trick, but so worthwhile for their benefit and growth.

  2. Thanks for sharing these tips! My son struggles with several anxieties, and failure is one of them. He holds himself to a high standard and won’t try something if there’s even a slight chance he won’t do it perfectly. He doesn’t even like playing sports because he might drop the ball.

    I love your suggestion to help our kids find their talent and then serve as their biggest fan. My son loves riding his bike, and he’s a strong rider. If I praise him whenever I can, especially when he makes it up a huge hill, maybe he’ll feel more confident to try new activities.

  3. What an amazing idea. I never would have thought of that. Thank you! All this time I kept quiet and let our daughter just, well, be, without pushing her to really do anything. I know she likes a little bit of tech. I watched her use my iPad a few times without her knowing I was watching and she was immersed in it for a long time.. I think I’ll have to consider getting her one and let her creativity flow.

    Question: do you suggest asking her what she’s interested in or just start supporting her more in whatever she picks up?


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