How To Help Your Anxious Child + Tips For Raising Mentally Strong Children

By Dr. Caroline Leaf




Being a parent can be challenging, especially when it comes to teaching your child how to handle the hard stuff in life. There is a thin line between being overprotective and being overcritical, and often there are situations where doing or saying the right thing seems impossible. In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with child psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Tina Payne Bryson about why we need to let our children experience negative emotions like anxiety and irritation, how to show up when your child is struggling, common parenting mistakes we all make and how we can avoid them, the importance of modeling behaviors as a parent or guardian, the difference between discipline and punishment, and what it means to take a mind-based approach to parenting.


Over the past several decades, more and more research on the mind and brain has shown us that we have a lot more power to change our lives than we ever thought we did, even when it comes to parenting. As Dr. Bryson points out, when we start using our mind to think about the way we interact without children, asking more “why” questions and trying to figure out how to teach our child to regulate their feelings and responses, this can help us avoid common parenting mistakes like:


1. Just focusing on the behavior.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents is that we focus too much on the behavior of the child and not enough on the mind behind the behavior. We should always be chasing the “why”. We need to investigate what is going on so we can treat the issue correctly; we need to peel the “layers” back.


2. Confusing punishment and discipline.

We need to rethink discipline, and recognize that most of the time kids are doing the best they can. When our children are not doing well, then we need to approach the situation with curiosity, not just anger. What is going on? Why are the acting that way or saying those things?


A disciplinarian should be a teacher and skill-builder, not a punisher. We shouldn’t punish kids for things they cannot help. The big question is, do they have skills to deal with this situation? What is their behavior telling us? It is important to remember that behaviors communicate the skills they need to learn. We need to stop punishing kids for things they don’t know how to do differently, which only makes them more anxious and upset.


When it comes to discipline, we are so focused on behavior that we forget to pay attention to regulation, or what strategies we can teach children so that they can do better next time. Compliance through punishment or rewards does not mean success. Regulation means success—it gets to the “why” behind certain behaviors and teaches the child to cope and builds resilience by addressing the root of their feelings and behavior.


3. Not being on the same page.

It is rare that two parents or guardians have an intentional and similar philosophy when it comes to discipline; most parents react in the moment. However, it is important that we take the time to get on the same page when it comes to how we choose to discipline our children. When there is a lot of conflict and confusion, it can undermine a child’s overall happiness. If you are parenting in response to the other parent’s reactions, you are not responding to the needs of the child.


That does not mean you need to say and do the exact same thing as your partner or spouse. As Dr. Bryson notes, it is good for kids to learn how to manage different reactions and personalities. On the other hand, it is helpful if you talk to your co-parent about your discipline philosophy and get on the same page in terms of what you want for your kids and what you want your kids to become.


This also means facing and dealing with your own childhood experiences. Are you repeating patterns from your own childhood, or trying to do things different without really examining your past experiences and what they mean? How has your childhood impacted you? How is your background affecting your parenting style? What is the mind behind your situation? When you can answer these questions, then you can learn how to resolve issues together as parents.


4. Pathologizing negative emotions and experiences.

In our society, we tend to pathologize normal human emotions like grief and sadness, which has made us more fragile. We need to give ourselves and our children permission to feel and be uncomfortable, because life is full of uncertainty and challenges. Indeed, if we try to protect our children from negative emotions like sadness or anxiety, rather than teaching them that this is part of life and building up their resilience, we send them signals that we don’t trust that they can handle the situation, which will undermine their view of themselves and set them up for failure in the future.


When your child is struggling, show up in the moment and allow them to feel what they feel. Don’t minimize how they feel, punish them or criticize their experiences. Say things like “I know this is hard” and “we will figure this out together”. Celebrate these feelings; teach your child that these emotions are normal and are telling them that something needs to be addressed in their life. This will help them build up their resilience and teach them how to cope with the ups and downs of life.


As Dr. Bryson notes in her book The Power of Showing Up, being present in this way creates a safe environment where the child can learn how to be independent. It is important to remember that kids move towards independence when they feel safe enough to do so. If most of their experiences teach them that they are “safe, seen, soothed and secure”, this will help them build up their mental capacity and resilience, teaching them to cope and soothe themselves and others during hard times. It also affects what they seek out in a relationship, because their repeated experiences have taught them the value of feeling safe and secure in a relationship.


This kind of parenting style does not mean that we won’t make mistakes from time to time. As parents, we don’t have to be perfect all the time. We need to look at the big picture: what are the majority of our child’s experiences teaching them? In fact, when we mess up and apologize, this is a good thing! We can model the real life “messiness” of relationships for our children, so the they too can model it in their own relationships.

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