One of the more challenging aspects of parenting is figuring out what your child is trying to say. Sure, most children are pretty direct when they talk, but it’s often their actions that can take a little bit of decoding. That’s because, in general, kids don’t have the capacity to express the emotions they are experiencing. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to anxiety.
Anxiety is one of those emotions that are truly a mind-body experience. It happens in your head, sure, but we also experience anxiety physically. If you’re a little kid who hasn’t yet developed the skills to understand what’s happening in her head, all you know is you’re uncomfortable. With no way to express that discomfort, it’s going to come out somehow, and that can mean anything from resistance at bedtime to tantrums at the grocery store. There are some things you can do, as a parent, to get in front of—and in some cases, even break through—your child’s expressions of anxiety.
Pre-teaching is a technique that comes from behavioral education. What it means is to literally set a child’s expectation about what’s going to happen. One of the most anxiety-provoking experiences for a child is in not knowing what to expect. When he has an idea of what’s going to happen, it not only diminishes his anticipated anxiety—the anxiety that arises out of not knowing—it also diminishes his anxiety during the experience.
For example, if you are in the grocery store, you might simply say, “We have two more things to pick up, then we are going to the cashier to pay and then we are going to go outside to the car.” Once you’ve picked up your items, you might amend that to say, “OK. All done! Now, we’re going to go to the cashier to pay, and then we’re going outside to the car, and then home.” Once you’re done with the cashier, you can reinforce the going outside to the car and going home.
At first, this might feel a little awkward and scripted—maybe even patronizing. What you’ll find, however, is that after doing it a few times, your child will start to ask, or even tell you, what happens next because of the expectation you set.
Children thrive on structure and consistency. Again, when they know what to expect, they feel safe. Part of building ritual is using the pre-teaching technique to set expectations. One of the mistakes that adults often make with children is giving them an instruction without giving them a rationale for it. So, when you say, “Seven o’clock; time for bed. Let’s go brush your teeth,” you practically set yourself up for failure. A better tactic would be to say something like, “Seven o’clock, let’s go brush your teeth so we don’t get any cavities and then we’ll go to bed, so we get a good night’s sleep, “ you’re creating ritual, giving instruction, providing a rational and setting an expectation, all in one sentence! The resistance to bedtime that might be coming out of anxiety about the dark, or being alone, or whatever, gets deflected because you’ve created a safe, consistent container of experience.
One of the big misunderstandings for parents around empowerment is the belief that kids become empowered because we empower them. In truth, empowerment is about action, and, as a parent, providing your child with the ability to take action for herself creates that sense of empowerment for her. When a child feels empowered to do something for herself—to take action—her anxiety naturally diminishes because she feels more in control of what’s happening. It’s a somewhat more personal version of knowing what to expect, except, she’s the one creating the expectation. For instance, if a child has food allergies and is starting to develop a certain amount of anxiety around meals, teaching her how to prepare her own food empowers her, diminishes her anxiety and gives her tools to be self-sustaining later on.
Using techniques like these to work with your child’s anxiety provides you with some powerful parenting tools that you can use in a lot of different ways. Pre-teaching, creating ritual and empowering your child will not only help them, but will create a more consistent and stable pattern of connection to continue building your relationship.