Helping Anxious Children Manage Scary Thoughts

When our emotions hijack our sense of security, we can quickly drop into rigid, obsessive or even unreasonable thoughts and behaviors.

“My 7 year old daughter has told me before, "I'm thinking of a bad word but I know I shouldn't say it."  I would respond with. "Well, don't say it."  But, last night she wrote to me how she had a "bad head" because she had a "bad thought." Can it be due to her moderate anxiety and her OCD tendencies? How can I help her when she says stuff like that?” - G

How can we respond to our children's scary thoughts and worrying emotions so they don't internalize the negativity? How can we help them learn to reflect and release any unhealthy or persistent thoughts?

My “label profile” includes things like anxiety, SPD, PTSD and Aspergers. As a sensitive child, I was often plagued by obsessive habits and thoughts which seemed to be running on a constant loop in my mind.

My brain seems to need a great big push to start up, and a super-strong brake to slow down and hold me back from getting lost in a tornado of triggering thoughts and emotions. 

I see some of these same traits in my daughter. Unable to let something go, she will hyper-focus on a situation or thought which left her feeling confused or helpless.

So what can you SAY?

As an adult, I have learned to be my own catalyst for change. I have cultivated an array of tools to restrain myself from going off-course. 

But, it took me years of mindful practice to build this self-awareness. Children don’t have that experience. They need a partner, a co-pilot to guide them through turbulent times.

Instinctively, you may want to repress the words or thoughts your children express, especially if you perceive them to be offensive or unpleasant. 

You may want to reason with your children, give advice and direct them to think of something else. Or, you might insist that they keep their thoughts to themselves. 

However, I would encourage you to view this challenge as an opportunity to share in a child’s inner world and see it as an invitation to connect and validate their experience.

This will help her discharge any toxic thoughts or emotions so they don’t build-up into destructive patterns or become part of their self-image. 

Here are four ways you can maintain limits while you create a forum for your children to freely express without judgment or shame.

1. Investigate the facts.

Check the facts to make sure you are not missing the message. Children need us to listen more than they need our advice.

Observe and notice your child's body language and emotional state. Then, make a non-judgmental statement to check-in and clarify what you're seeing or hearing.

2. Share your world.

Children have limited perspectives which become even more narrow when they feel stress or fear.

When scary or uncomfortable thoughts or feelings arise, it is not uncommon for children to feel isolated and alone in their experience. 

Sharing your story or anecdotes from your childhood helps normalize their experience, and conveys to children that what they're feeling or thinking is not a flaw and they don't need to be ashamed.

3. Be curious.

Curiosity encourages reflection without the shame and frustration that often accompanies unnecessary advice, and allows us to connect with our child's emotional state.

Once we manage our own internal resistance or fear, we can access the cognitive part of our brain to engage our children with thoughtful responsiveness.

4. Offer help.

Stimulate the problem-solving centers of the brain by offering a helping hand, instead of a directive. 

When we feel like someone is there to guide and support our needs, we can reflect on our behavior and take strategic steps to resolve our predicament. 

Negative thoughts command our attention. 

Working in unison with your children helps them identify the root cause of their behavior. This leads to coping strategies which serve their needs, and they don't resort to stuffing down the "bad parts."

My daughter uses a journal to release her undesirable thoughts but this evolved from her using me as a container for the more unfavorable opinions and ideas that crossed her mind.

She knew that while some actions were unacceptable, I would always be there to listen to the ugly things that she felt or thought.

Feeling heard without judgment enabled her shift out of reactionary patterns and into resiliency.

I'd love to know what you think. Has your child ever struggled with persistent, negative thoughts or general anxiety?

What would you say to help your child express without fear of judgment? Leave a comment below and share your story. 

Until next time, please remember, it's about consciousness - not perfection.

Have a wonderful week!

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About Lori