Uncertainty and anxiety are a necessary part of a child’s exploration of their new world. Parents have stressors from uncertainty too, although they’re far more tangible and perhaps far less necessary. These stressors can trigger the same fight-or-flight anxiety that a kid might feel when imagining a toe chomping monster hiding under their bed. A parent’s monsters are more pernicious: A job loss. A final notice. A pandemic like coronavirus. But the way children see parents cope with their own monstrous fears and anxieties — and how parents talk to kids about them — can have a huge impact on how they deal with their own fears throughout childhood, for better or worse.
“If you have anxieties and worries, this isn’t bad. This is an excellent way to help your child,” says psychologist Dr. Reid Wilson, co-author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children. Wilson says that parents should share with kids how they’ve had fearful experiences in the past, and how they still become afraid when approaching certain activities. It can, he suggests, help kids understand that their fears are normal — and can be overcome.
How a parent reacts in a sketchy situation can influence a child’s perception, too. “Fearful facial expressions and body language reinforce anxiety,” explains Wilson. “Parents can think whatever they want, but they should try to show confidence.”
Showing confidence, however, is not the same as masking fear. Kids are brilliant at picking up on non-verbal signals. They’ll notice reactions to a stressor despite attempts to hide it. How parents follow up on the anxiety they’re experiencing can influence the way kids view that same anxiety in the future and how they will react in similar situations.
Four Ways to Not Transfer Your Anxiety to a Child
- Don’t mask or hide your fears. Kids will pick up on them anyway. Instead, display confidence when talking about what scares you.
- Listen to their worries. Help children externalize their fears.
- Model coping behaviors for your children. Show them that some anxiety is normal and that there are ways of overcoming it.
- Allow your child to experience fear and worry. Help her develop tools to deal with them.
“If your child is picking up on your anxious behavior, then it’s fine to explain to them what’s going on in general, as long as you are using age-appropriate language,” Wilson explains. “But then you need to explain what you’re doing to get stronger, and how you are being courageous in the face of your difficulties.”
Hiding parental anxieties might seem like an effective way of protecting kids from negative feelings. But this doesn’t do much to allay children’s fears, and it can starve them of the tools they need in later life when they’re faced with frightening situations that are novel and have much higher stakes. Wilson says that the biggest problem for parents is avoidance, which can limit your child’s desire for exploration. “When you start backing away from anxiety-provoking circumstances, then you start giving up territory,” Wilson says. This can lead to a habit of avoiding difficult situations and shying away from new experiences.
Sitting on a child’s bed and listening to their fears is a great way to help with anxiety. Wilson says that it’s best to focus on the process of worry and anxiety in a “big picture” way by helping kids to externalize worry and talk through it, developing their own strategies for managing it. “When your child asks for reassurance, remind him to give himself the reassurance he wants,” Wilson says. You can also have your child talk directly to their fears. “Ask, ‘how might you answer that,’ or say ‘that sounds like worry talking. What can you say back?’”
If anxieties go unchecked, kids can grow up without the tools needed to confront bigger worries as they go out into the world. The fear of ghosts and closet-dwelling monsters can give way to potentially serious social anxieties. As with many aspects of parenting, the way parents model those coping behaviors will be the key to dispelling childhood fears.
Parental anxieties aren’t harmful to kids, in-and-of themselves. And honestly, many parents turn the lights out in the basement at night and still sprint breathlessly up the stairs with gritted teeth and clenched fists just in case some monster snatches them before they get to the light. And that’s OK too, as long as they’re prepared to sit down and talk to kids about how to control those fears, so they don’t end up controlling their lives.