It’s been a really long week and your child was invited to sleep at a friend’s house, offering you some well-needed adult time. You’ve been looking forward to this night since the second you said, “Yes,” to the invitation. As you’re preparing to drop your child off, he or she says, “I’m really nervous about the sleepover. I’m not sure I want to go.” With a hug and a kiss, your parting words are “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.”
Other than not being very helpful, what’s wrong with this phrase? I’ve certainly said it plenty of times thinking that I’m providing the reassurance my child is seeking. If you have an anxious child, however, there are much better ways of responding that aren’t “doing the disorder” as one of my favorite therapists, Lynn Lyons, LISW, says. Anxiety wants reassurance – an endless, multiplying and shape-shifting supply of it. When you say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” you’re not acknowledging what your child is experiencing (distress, concern, fear, etc.) and are giving in to the reassurance his or her anxiety – or “worry bully” – wants.
So what’s a better way to respond? Ideally, you should validate what your child is feeling, communicate that you believe he or she can handle the situation (or handle it better than your child thinks he or she can), and together devise a plan to get through it. “It’s normal to feel nervous before a sleepover. I remember feeling that way when I was your age, too. Why don’t we come up with a plan, so you have some tools to help deal with it and have a good time.”
For an anxious child, the content of his or her worries (why he or she doesn’t want to go) are generally not important, so I encourage you not to spend a lot of time on them as their focus will shift. Rather, concentrate on:
- Supportive communication (validating, plus expecting more than your child thinks he or she can do)
- Decreasing his or her accommodating behaviors
- Helping your child become an autonomous problem solver
As parents, we want to be able to fix everything for kids. But, eventually, they have to learn to cope with anxiety on their own. It’s is the most effective way for your child to truly “be fine” moving forward.