Maggie is seeing a tutor to brush up on her writing skills but during the lesson, she seemed less engaged and focused than usual. After several failed attempts at getting on task, Maggie broke down in tears and ran to the bathroom sick to her stomach for what turned out to be the third time that day. Besides that, she is not doing as well as we know she can in school and she is lagging behind on university applications. We’re extremely worried, but when we tried to talk to her about it, she just yelled and told us to give her space. What do we do?
This scenario is becoming more and more common for children and adolescents alike as students face mounting pressures from all sides to perform and to fit in. Here are some tips for handling an anxious child:
Make it “safe” to be stressed out. Seeing your child break down is disturbing enough, and when she snaps at you for trying to be supportive, it hurts and can trigger fear, frustration, or even anger. But as parents, you are the adults in the situation and your response can make or break the relationship with your child. When in the heat of the moment, keep words to a minimum. She is already feeling terrible for underperforming, being out of control, wasting the time of the teacher, not being able to complete the work, and more. When she broke down, these worries were strong enough to trigger her body to react. This is not the time to have a heart-to-heart or ask the 100 questions about why she is throwing up or to lecture her on how her time management is poor. This is the time for you to be the calm physical presence that offers support and empathy. Simple phrases like, “Feeling really sick?” or “Has it been a really rough day?” are ways empathize with your child. You may get something hostile in return such as, “No kidding! Are you stupid?!” or “Never mind! You wouldn’t understand!” So how do you respond? “Wow, I can see you’re upset. I’ll be here if you want to talk” or “No, I don’t understand right now because we haven’t had a chance to talk yet. But when you’re ready, I’ll be in my room” will show Maggie that her stress and emotional outbursts are not too much for you and that you are ‘big enough’ to handle it. Your response shows her that you aren’t offended or hurt by her, that you’re willing to give her the space she needs, and that you will always be there whenever she’s ready to talk.
Not pressuring for immediate solutions or action will not only reduce anxiety but also empower the child
Support what she says. When Maggie begins to share what’s stressing her out, don’t minimize or belittle what she says. It’s very common for parents to try to solve the stress by putting a ‘positive spin’ on things to make bad things look better. There’s a time and place for that. However, when they first share their feelings of despair, anxiety, or worry, telling them that it’s not a big deal, that lots of other people face the same things, or that they should be grateful that they aren’t living in a war torn country only serve to invalidate their feelings. This only teaches them to not trust their emotions; instead, sit with them in their fear. Acknowledge their feelings with responses such as, “Sounds like that paper is really challenging” or “Seems like everyone in the school is stressing out about those finals huh?”. When they feel like you’re respecting their feelings and not judging them as trivial or silly, you establish a line of communication that allows them to process their feelings with you. You might hear a response like, “Yes! It’s really challenging and I just don’t know if I can do it.” Then you can sit with her and acknowledge how that feels, “It’s hard when you’re trying so hard and it’s not coming together. Frustrating and scary huh?”. Recognizing her emotions and attentively listening will make her feel supported and validated.
Wait for the ‘exhale’. When children feel heard, they will eventually exhale; whether if it’s in the form of a wave of words, tears, or a burst of physical impulses. Eventually, if you stick to being calm, present, and connected, she will exhale and come to her ‘right mind’. Modelling and supporting the practice of relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, taking a pause, or visualization, usually helps tremendously in bringing stress levels down for everyone.
When all the above (in steps 1 and 2) is going on, her brain (and usually the parent’s brain) is literally hijacked by panic which causes the fight, flight, or freeze response. Once she exhales and finds the comfort and assurance from you, the prefrontal cortex of her brain, which holds all the problem solving abilities and cognitive function, will start to kick in again; she will then be more able to have a rational discussion about ways to solve the problem. This is when questions like, “What do you think would help you?” or “How can we support you better?” can give Maggie a chance to clarify what she needs and think about ways in which she wants to be supported. If she can’t answer you right away, assure her that you are willing to wait for her to get back to you, during which you can also think of how you can support her. Not pressuring for immediate solutions or action will not only reduce anxiety but also empower the child. This encourages the child to listen to inner wisdom as well as to make herself open to the support of others.
This article was originally published as “Case Study: How to help your child when they are stressed?” on SCMP Education Post.