Picture this scene: the mother, a child psychologist with years of clinical training, and her unhappy 7 year old, who does NOT want to leave home on this particular day.
My child: “Mom, I don’t want to go to camp”… crying, whining, whimpering… “My leg hurts. I want to go home. Why do I have to go to camp? Why can’t I just stay home?”
My supportive statement: “It’s okay to feel nervous, and I’m confident you can do it.”
What to Say to a Child with Anxiety: Use Supportive Parenting Techniques
My child: continues above statements on loop.
The drive was 22 minutes and it felt like eternity. My kid was downright GRITTY when it came to trying to convince me to let him off the hook with camp. Minor construction turned the drive into 30 minutes and I actually had to bite my tongue to stop myself from saying all the other things that popped into my head (by the way, I did let a couple of these slip out too).
I wanted to say: “Actually my 4pm client canceled so you don’t even have to stay for aftercare!” I did say “You probably don’t have to stay for the whole after-care” (this one I’m particularly NOT proud of).
So then I was supposed to say: “let’s use some strategies to feel calmer”. Instead, I actually said, “I think saying ‘I don’t wanna go to camp’ over and over is making you feel worse” – but I said it warmly…maybe?
I also wanted to say: “This is afternoon-only camp. It’s literally 4 hours of arts and crafts and games”. Instead I said: “Just remember, it’s only a few hours and then I’ll pick you up”.
I’m not kidding when I say I’ve done hours of training as a child psychologist to (mostly) avoid the statements that popped into my head and stick with the supportive statement. In fact, my supportive statement probably would have earned only a B.
A much better response might have been: “I see this is hard for you (validation), and I’m confident you can do it (confidence).”
Either way, here’s what even my mediocre supportive statement did: it gave me something to say in addition to “I love you” while we made our way to camp. It helped me follow through with sending him into camp even though we were both worried about it.
Here’s what it did NOT do: magically make him stop crying and decide that he was excited to go to camp. I’m grateful for all of my training that doesn’t make me expect that. But boy do I still really really want it!
Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions
I’m a child psychologist trained in SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions), a parent-based treatment program for children with anxiety), and I’ll be the first one to tell you how miserable it made me to hear my kid experiencing anxiety, and how much I wanted to make it go away (so that mine would go away too). This is despite knowing in my gut that he was going to be fine, that I want him to have experiences like this where he has to persevere, and that I had absolutely no intention of “signing him out of camp” that day (his words).
So if you are a parent who has modified your plan or behavior because your child has expressed anxiety, I totally get it. You may have ‘accommodated‘ your child’s anxiety so often over the years that you feel like there are no other options. If you want to learn alternative strategies that can truly help reduce your child’s anxiety, consider joining our upcoming SPACE-informed group for parents. Responding with supportive statements is only one ingredient – we’ll be excited to share much more with you.