Raising Richmond: Stressed out shorties

Five ways to help your child deal with anxiety (from the perspective of a mother who is a worrywart in her own right).

He was totally stoked at first

“We signed you up for soccer lessons, JR!” my mother announced as our son opened a brand new, youth-sized ball of his very own.

His face lit up in a big smile as he practiced his dribbling around our living room and through the legs of his relatives.

But a few days later, it began to sink in.

I’d ask him from time to time if he was excited to start soccer. He’d offer an unenthusiastic “Uh-huh.”

Then he started to just sort of shrug.

Soon after, he’d flat-out ignore the question. I could see the wheels turn in his head as he began to process what “soccer lessons” would actually entail: a new experience in a new place with new people who might…look at him and stuff. My chest ached in recollection of similar panic-prompted losing-of-shits I experience when I was a kid.

I knew what was coming. And it did—about a week before his first lesson when I decided to casually broach the subject again, just to see where he was with it. JR responded with sobs, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, and a few desperate, hiccupping pleas that we abandon the idea altogether.

“Mama, let’s not do soccer. Please? No soccer, OK, Mama? No thank you, Mama.”1

(That last bit sort of killed me.)

But I don’t share this story with you as a means to open a discussion on the challenges of raising an anxious child2–although, if you feel the need to get that ball rolling in the comments, you’re more than welcome. I share it with you because it set the stage for a major success for our son…and for me as a mother who often struggles to keep a handle on her own anxiety.

As I sat there, holding my blubbering, worried, mess of a little boy, I could say to myself, with complete confidence, “Dude. I’ve got this.”3 And [SPOILER ALERT] I totally did. We’re halfway through this soccer session, and JR’s hitting the field each week like it’s no big deal.

Except it is a big deal for him—just as I’m sure it would be for some of your kids. So in celebration of our latest triumph, I want to use this space today to pass along a handful of tips that we’ve found effective in easing JR’s anxieties. I’ll be sharing them in the context of The Great Soccer Effort of 2013, but we’ve made use of them across the board. It’s my hope that they’ll also help other parents enjoy a few “Dude. I’ve got this.” moments with their own kids.

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1. Identify the real source of stress.

I knew when tears started gushing down JR’s woefully crumpled little face that soccer—kicking a ball down a field–wasn’t the issue. But I also knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere near that field until I helped him articulate what was really bothering him. After all, kids have lots of feelings, but, due to lack of vocabulary or confidence, they often struggle to express themselves. To get them there, you’ve just got to be willing to hunker down and ask a lot of questions–and to listen carefully as you go.

As I talked things over with JR, starting with simple yes-or-no questions and then moving on to the more open-ended variety, he eventually got to the point where he could share what really scared him about soccer: the possibility that he “wouldn’t win.” By helping him pinpoint the real source of his anxiety, I was then able to address it in a way that was both comforting and productive—which brings us to my next tip.

2. Empathize—do NOT trivialize.

Think about how you feel when someone says, “you’re overreacting” or “that’s just silly.” Probably pretty pissed off, right? Well, for kids (at least from my experience) it makes them feel powerless and small in a situation that already feels big and scary.

Sure, a child’s feelings of anxiety might seem silly or trivial from an adult’s perspective, but the feelings are there, nonetheless. Writing them off isn’t going to make them go away, and it certainly isn’t going to help that child figure out what to do with them. When JR shared his anxiety over not winning soccer,4 I realized there would be no talking him out of his fear. He needed to know he wasn’t alone, to hear me say, “I’ve been there, bud.” Parental empathy is a mighty force that can both comfort and empower children–anxious or not. We should call on it freely and regularly.

3. Embrace the “what if?” conversation.

When dealing with an anxious child, our first impulse it to pat him on the head and say, “Oh, everything will be fine.” Because, really, it probably will—at least we hope so. But in helping our kids face their fears, we should consider talking about worst-case scenarios, i.e. their fears coming true. My conversation with JR went a little something this:

“Sooooooooo, what if you don’t win at soccer?” I asked.

“…I don’t know,” he whispered in between sniffles.

“Will Daddy and I still love you?”

“Yes!” he replied, incredulously.

“Will your feet fall off?”

“No,” he said, his eyes brightening a bit.

“Will people throw stinky, rotten tomatoes at you?”

“I hope not!” he giggled.

And on and on we went until JR dissolved into a pile of belly laughs, and I could almost see the anxiety leaving his body.

Pretending your child’s fear couldn’t possibly come true might serve you well in the short-term, but it can’t hurt to prepare our kids for the fact that sometimes the shit hits the fan. Talking about it and working through possible scenarios (realistic or ridiculous) helps them gain some perspective on the situation, develop a plan of action if necessary, and—at least in our case—break the tension with a little silliness.

4. Push when needed.

Lest you think JR’s anxieties over soccer were totally squashed after that first lesson, I should tell you that he ended the afternoon in tears. A gnarly combination of general clumsiness, slippery grass, and sheer exhaustion after 30 minutes of non-stop activity caused him to take a giant, flailing spill in front of everyone. If he’d had his way, we would’ve immediately piled in the car and gone home, never to return.

Well, he didn’t have his way. I decided the benefits of this specific experience had to take priority over his anxieties.5

I made him finish the lesson. And then he finished the next one, and the next one, and the next one, until that spill transformed from a source of much woe to this sort of funny thing that happened one time doing something he loves. If I hadn’t pushed, he never would’ve gotten to that point—and he would’ve missed out on a lot of fun.

5. Celebrate successes.

The first time JR made it through a soccer lesson with no tears, I took him out for a special lunch. The next time, he got to add a giant pom pom to his Good Job Jar. Now at the end of each lesson, he’s greeted with cheers, high-fives, and (if he lets me) approximately 40 gazillion hugs and kisses. And each week he heads to the car with his chin a little bit higher as he chatters on about how he can’t wait to come back next week.

Acknowledging and celebrating even the smallest of your children’s victories will not only build their self-confidence but will also help them see the value in moving outside of their comfort zones. Pushing through fears and anxiety is hard work for anyone at any age. Make sure your children know it’s A Big Deal—that you’re proud and they should be, too.

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  1. The kid knows that manners go a long way with me. Even though it didn’t work, I found his strategy impressive. And adorable. 
  2. I don’t want to say that JR “has anxiety” because he’s never received any sort of medical diagnosis or anything of that nature. He’s just has a tendency to get anxious about certain situations. 
  3. I’m well aware of how fleeting this feeling is, but I’m choosing to celebrate it while it’s here. Don’t rain on my parenting parade. 
  4. Which I think we could also call a fear of failure. Hello, Apple. I’m Tree. 
  5. This is obviously a case-by-case thing. Don’t go hollering at your kid to suck it up and deal6 just because I said so. 
  6. For the record, I never told JR to suck it up and deal. I just repeatedly chirped, “The lesson isn’t over! Go play, JR!” as my heart slowly cracked into a million pieces, as it always will when he cries because he’s my prayshus baybee snowflake. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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