As a preschooler, people would always comment about how caring and concerned with others my daughter was.
She was constantly praised and applauded for how well she shared, waited her turn, and never got angry with anyone.
At first, we (naively) prided ourselves for raising her to be so well-behaved and kind, as if we were some sort of parenting rockstars.
However, as she got older, we saw signs that there was more going on than just an expertly raised child. By the second grade, she was laying in bed, night after night, for hours, unable to stop the spin of worries for other people: what did they think or feel, did they like her or not, did she upset someone that day, how could she get through the day without hurting anyone’s feelings?
The thought of navigating the next school day sent her into a panic.
Some nights, she would pass out from sheer exhaustion at 1 a.m., while others, the worries would become so enormous, she would be physically ill.
My husband was the first one brave enough to say it out loud: Maybe it was time to take her to a therapist.
I was floored by his ludicrous suggestion—I was her mother, I knew how to take care of her, she did not need to talk to a stranger, and he was insane for suggesting it.
What would that even look like for her? Would it make her feel weird or broken or sick?
My husband felt strongly about it, as he has suffered from pretty debilitating anxiety, but when I looked at him and her, they were so different that I thought there was no way she had anxiety.
But the more I watched what she was going through, the more I realized I could not relate to her. I was in over my head—I did not know how to fix her.
She began therapy, and so did I. I needed to face the insecurity that I did not know how to help my baby, and she needed to learn how manage her worries and cope with the overwhelming feelings she was having. Between my therapist and hers, we began a pretty in-depth education on anxiety: what it is and what it isn’t, what to say and how to react, when to engage and disengage.
At first, it felt like every single thing I was doing intuitively was dead wrong—the first one being the phrase, “Don’t be silly.” I had never considered the gravity that statement communicates to a very scared, very anxious nine-year-old.
When I finally thought it through, my heart sank. How could I essentially tell her that she is silly for how she feels, that something is wrong with her, that she’s the odd one out who thinks that way? No wonder she was making herself sick!
Here I was, thinking I was doing everything right by my kids, and all I was doing was putting her down, constantly, without even realizing it.
So I began to examine the many things we adults tell children when they seek our support and validation.
I have found some things we all could be doing better to reinforce how enough they are.
This one seems so simple, yet I feel like it is often the most overlooked. When our children come to us with things that worry them, it is absolutely vital to let them know their feelings are okay—even if you do not agree with them. What this does is assure them that they are safe to talk to you, that they are not alone or weird or stupid.
Sometimes, it’s hard, because the content of their concerns may seem trivial. But I can assure you, it is not trivial to them—it is very, very real. Their worlds are so small, and so their minds magnify and compound the little things.
2. Guide, never judge.
Once we have given them assurance that they’re okay, we begin to tiptoe through the maze of guiding them to think about what they’re worried about and decide for themselves which worries are real and which ones aren’t.
It is way too often the opposite when we speak to children; as fixers, we rush to decide for them what is worthy of their concern. But learning how to sort through that on their own is a vital life skill for every man, woman, and child on this planet—not just the anxious ones.
3. Bring them into the present
The hardest tool I had to learn is when to disengage from the conversation, because as parents, we don’t ever want to shut down a child who is hurting and desperate for us to fix it.
But the thing is this, we cannot fix it. No matter how hard we try or how wonderful we are, the fixing has to come from the child. The only option we have is to learn how to be a source of unwavering support while they learn how to manage their worry.
With my daughter, there is usually something that starts the spin, which then progresses as the fears get bigger and bigger and spiral out of control, leaving her desperate for me to make promises that I could never possibly fulfill.
For example, there is a lot of her saying, “Promise me you will never die.” Obviously, as much as I wish I could, I cannot in good faith promise her that. It is in situations like these where we need to try to divert them back into the present and focus on enjoying life as it is right now—because the future is not in our control.
4. Focus on the good.
In the moments when she falls deep into despair and hopelessness, we have had a lot of success by making her write down three things she was grateful for that day. She keeps them in a jar so we can go back and remember that no matter how scary things feel, there is always good to be found.
This is a practice I believe everyone could benefit from, anxious or not. It is so easy to fall into the trap of focusing on lack, on hurt and fear, but there is usually something good in every single day. Sometimes, it is getting a sweet parking spot or unexpected praise from a teacher or boss, while on tougher days, it might be curling up with a good movie and a soft blanket.
Either way, the more we notice the good, the better we feel. For people with anxiety in particular, writing gratitude down is especially helpful, because when they get to a place where they feel like everything is wrong, it is hard for them to recall the many rights.
There are so many lessons that I have learned so far on this emotional, humbling journey. A big one for me was that there is no shame in asking for help, that there is always something we can learn to do better, and that it’s important to be grateful for all the amazing things we have around us.
But by far the biggest takeaway is that the words and reactions we give to our children are more important than the clothes we buy them, the playdates we set up, and the homework we prioritize.
Listen closely to what they are actually asking for. The real need isn’t always on the surface; sometimes, it’s a plea for validation, for you to affirm that they are normal, that things will be okay, and that they have your support when they need it.
I look at the tremendous progress my daughter is making and smile. She is learning to embrace her uniqueness and to see her extreme empathy as a superpower in making other people feel comfortable to be themselves.
I know that there will be peaks and valleys and that her anxiety will never fully go away, but I am finally prepared to be a light in the darkness for her, forever willing to remind her how perfectly wonderful and enough that she is.