by Erica Garza
When a child is anxious or having trouble paying attention, you might try to communicate reason and rationality in unhelpful ways. Either frustration might lead you to say something insensitive, or you might try to appease the child by letting them avoid their anxiety altogether. However, a child’s anxiety or attention disorder can also be an opportunity to communicate effective coping mechanisms for them, which can be skilled to last a lifetime. Whether you are a teacher or parent, the following phrases might sound familiar to you but should be avoided. We’ll break down the reasons why they are ineffective while offering alternative phrases that may work better.
1. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
When a child expresses their worries, it may be tempting to tell them that there’s nothing to be afraid of. But Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, explains that in doing so, we’re “shutting the child down,” which can be frustrating for them. Instead, validate their feelings and make space for a conversation about why they feel the way they feel. You might also help model mindfulness and relaxation techniques like slow breathing.
Try Instead:“I understand how you feel. Is there any way I can help you feel better?”
2. “It’s all going to be OK.”
You may think that it sounds supportive to reassure a child that everything is going to be fine, but you run the risk of making a promise you can’t keep and losing trust. Communicating with children who have anxiety or attention disorders is strongest when you avoid making blanket statements and instead encourage them to think of ways that they can help themselves.
Try Instead: “I know you are scared, and that’s OK. Is there anything you can try to help yourself feel better?”
3. “It's all in your head.”
Telling an anxious child that their worries are only in their head, and therefore unreal, only shames the child for not thinking the “right” way. Instead, acknowledge what the child is feeling while offering useful ways to quiet their thoughts and get back into their bodies. Limiting screen time, which might activate the child’s mind more, and practicing a physical activity like yoga or walking, can ease the child’s racing thoughts and bring you closer together.
Try Instead: “It sounds like your mind is really loud right now. Let’s take a walk together and gather new thoughts.”
4. “Look at those other kids. They’re not worried.”
A statement like this can also be shaming for the child. They may feel inferior to non-anxious peers and feel bad about themselves in comparison. The statement also rarely helps to solve the anxiety. Instead of making your child feel separate from their peers, let the child know that everybody worries from time to time and that there is nothing wrong with that. Simply knowing that they are not alone in their anxiety can help the child start to feel better.
Try Instead: “I’m sorry you are feeling that way. I know that it doesn’t feel good because I’ve felt this way too. Everybody gets worried from time to time.”
5. “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”
Teaching an anxious child to avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it tends to reinforce anxiety over the long run. If a child relies on their parent or teacher to eliminate the stressor or whisk them away from it, they learn to cope through escape or reliance on others to solve their problems. Instead, empower your child by being empathetic, helping them understand what they’re anxious about and encouraging them to face their fears.
Try Instead: “I know you are worried, but you can do this. I’m here to help you if you need me.”
It takes time and practice to learn how to best communicate with a child struggling with anxiety or an attention disorder. Try not to be so hard on yourself if you say the wrong thing. The more you practice addressing anxiety and offer useful coping mechanisms, the more empowered your child will feel.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a master's degree in Writing from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health and VICE.