Today is the first day back at school for my daughter after a long summer break. She is excited, eager, bright-eyed and bushy tailed. She knows she has a few skirmishes ahead, because her school skirt is far too short. Over the summer, she also had a few disagreements with a teacher about a piece of work she had to submit for the start of term. All in all, it would not be a straightforward day ahead, but she is looking forward to it with a big smile on her face.
But for some children, first day at school is an anxious event.
Sometimes – though very rarely – my daughter feels anxious too. For example, when she stepped out onto the football pitch in a large stadium for the first time in Lisbon, facing the home team, Benfica. She had never played against a European team before, and thus, she did not know what to expect. I could sense her anxiety and was slightly concerned. And then, to everyone’s surprise, she walked onto the pitch earlier than anyone else and began warming up on her own in front of the spectators. I knew that was her way of conquering her “wobbly feelings”, of regaining control of herself.
It is very important to teach children how to deal with their wobbly feelings. Some adults do not have the know-how, and unmanaged anxiety gets worse in the adult world. You see it in the actions of jumpy people. For example, getting disproportionately upset by traffic jams or phone calls that did not go well. These seemingly minor events cause stress and sometimes induce course of actions that have detrimental effect in the long term, like making rash, irrational decisions. Just like an animal that is frightened, the anxious human being kicks out indiscriminately or runs away at the first drop of the hat, over nothing. These impulsive actions are not conducive at all to long-term emotional and mental wellbeing (and by extension, physical health).
These are my suggestions for teaching your children how to master their anxiety:
(1) NEVER BELITTLE THEIR CONCERNS
The worst thing a parent could do is tell a nervous child not to be a baby or ignore his fears. With these heartless words and action, you might grow an externally tough child, but the little one who needed your reassurance still lurks inside the adult in years to come. This is when you see grown men or women behaving like frightened children, despite their professional success and status.
(2) EXPLAIN INSTEAD
Parenting requires a huge investment of time. Much of that huge investment of time is spent in the talking. Talk to your child about what anxiety feels like – that racing heart, the clammy palms, the sick-in-the-tummy feeling, so that your child know what to expect. Explain that it is all very normal, and he or she is not a baby or a scaredy cat for feeling that way.
As Sigmund Freud said, unexpressed feelings have a way of showing up a whole lot uglier.
(3) GROUND YOUR CHILD
Give your child a safe place to come home to. And teach your child to hold on to that safe place whenever anxiety hits them. I always remind my children, including my adult ones, “You’re fine, your whole family is right behind you.” No doubt my daughter thought about being back in my parents’ drawing room surrounded by her family when she stepped onto that foreign football pitch in front of strangers and got on with her life as normally as she could, as if she were home in a safe environment surrounded by her loved ones.
Let them know that it is OK to make mistakes. Let them know that if they get hurt, you will be there to pick them up and make them OK again.
Photo: deep gash that would have required stitches but she got up and played again.
Yes, you will get hurt in life, but you will be loved back to wholeness again.
(4) MANAGEMENT TOOLS
Give your child management tools to cope with his or her anxiety. This could be a simple breathing exercise (count your breath till 20) or a mantra such as Om Mane Padme Hum. Or sometimes, playing a song again and again at home, so that it is interwoven into your child’s psyche and becomes something that he or she can call upon in times of stress. John Lennon’s Imagine is a good one.
(5) LOVE YOUR CHILD FIERCELY
There is no substituting a parent’s loving arms. Hug a lot, kiss a lot, and say a lot of I love you’s. Because even when your children are not physically near, the energy of your love stays with them always, giving them strength.
Photo below: anxiety gone as she chased a ball into goal 🙂
Related post: When you give a child too much love