Updated: Oct 15, 2018
Anyone who has had children knows the drill; you start with a teeny tiny baby who you love, cherish and adore but who is utterly exhausting and throws your life into chaos. "It will get easier" everyone tells you and you cling on to that hope through all the sleepless nights, feeding nightmares and potty training (the list goes on). If you are lucky, they are right, and it does get easier (or maybe just different) for a while. However, just when you think you've started to turn a corner you are hit by a whole new set of challenges, and these ones trouble you so much more than worrying about whether they should be eating lumpier food by now. No matter their age, once your child starts to articulate their worries and fears to you, we need to start parenting on a whole new level.
Maybe your child is worried about being rubbish at maths, being laughed at during sports day or they worry excessively about an argument with friends. Maybe they become fearful of you leaving and become upset every time you need to drop them at school or a friend’s house. Perhaps they fear things that seem strange (and ever so slightly random) like an army of bumble bees taking the roof off your house or wolves coming into their bedroom (there's the wolves again!).
It is natural to want to ease your child's worry or distress and 'make it better' that's what we feel our job is as parents.For many of us, reassuring our child is a natural first response.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine”, “I promise there are no wolves in our house, you have nothing to worry about”, “don’t be silly, of course nobody will laugh at you”, "but you love tennis, of course you will enjoy it!".
This may seem like the right thing to say but without meaning it to be, this can be dismissive and denying of their fears. What your child is saying to you is "I'm scared or worried about something and i don't know how to handle it" they might not even be able to articulate it (more on that another time). By jumping straight to reassurance we are often saying - just get on with it you will be fine, trust me. Now, it's not that this is never going to work or be useful, but the last thing you want is for your child to feel you don't understand them or care about how they are feeling. This will just create a divide between you.
Imagine you are at work and you are finding a piece of work difficult, challenging or just downright impossible for whatever reason. Now imagine you go to your manager/supervisor/sponsor/mentor (whatever the set-up is like at your work) and you tell them about your difficulties. If the response you get (perhaps even in the middle of a meeting in front of others) is that you just need to "crack on" or "get on with it", the job has to get done regardless so "make it work" how would you feel? I'm guessing, like your difficulties haven't been properly registered or heard? You may feel that the onus is still all on you to sort it out alone because your manager either doesn't know how to help or doesn't want to? You are then left alone with the concern, worry or even anxiety about it and now also feeling pretty frustrated, unsupported and perhaps even embarrassed or angry. Well this is similar to what happens to our children. From this perspective it's easy to see why reassuring them can backfire.
Have you ever tried to repeatedly reassure your child and its ended up more like an argument? They seemingly can't hear you and protest loudly "but what if....." after everything you say whilst getting steadily more upset. You might be getting more and more frustrated that what you are saying 'isn't getting through' and start to feel a bit exhausted or impatient. Perhaps, despite your best efforts, your child just doesn’t listen, or they get more and more worked up and what seemed like a small thing has turned in to an epic two hour bedtime battle. Moreover, what if the worries don't go away? Your child may keep worrying about something to the point that they don't want to join in or try anymore. Perhaps they start worrying about lots of different things and you have run out of ways of reassuring them. This is a sign that your child doesn't feel heard and it's time to try something new.
There are lots of different ways of tackling your child's worries but the first step is to recognise their distress and connect with them emotionally. Let your child know you've heard them and understand their worries or fears.
"It must be really scary to think there are wolves in our house" is a very different opening response to "there is nothing to be afraid of, there are no wolves in our house".
"It's difficult starting something new isn't it? it's OK to feel worried about that sometimes" is different to "you'll love it I promise, now lets go join in".
Before you can try and offer anything else, connecting and acknowledging their distress and worry is the most important thing. Without this children often cannot hear what else we have to say.
There are lots of strategies that we can use after this step but first its helpful to understand how our children's brains work when they come to you with these worries. Coming soon: the neuroscience behind our children's worries and fears.