What Should Parents Do When Anxious Kids Mess Up?
So many parents I see bring their children into our clinic because of anxiety. Parents are often really stuck when it comes to figuring out what to do when their anxious kids actually do need some feedback or correction. Parents often think that they don’t want to correct or give feedback to their anxious children for fear that this will make the children even more anxious. Actually, when feedback is given in the right way, parents and children alike can breathe a sigh of relief.
Anxious kids are afraid of lots of things – especially messing up and getting in trouble. They worry about others being mad at them, or things not going as they “should.” Sometimes kids don’t even realize they are anxious and they just seem irritable or have tantrums when the smallest things change or are not as they expected. As parents, we tend to think we will spare children from having to be anxious about one more thing. But what we really want children to learn is that they can get through it – whatever is worrying them or causing them anxiety. And they can learn it at home from the people who know them the best, love them, and where they are most comfortable.
Parents are the best people to teach their anxious children a realistic, safe, and resilient understanding of making mistakes. Maybe they accidentally hurt someone, broke a rule, or lied. These are all typical kid behaviours, but for the anxious kid, they can feel like the end of the world. Anxious kids fear that making a mistake is forever, that it redefines them and instantly changes their reputation—one false move, and (in their minds) they tumble from being star student to being pegged as a trouble maker. That misunderstanding itself makes them more anxious—even when nothing has happened.
Especially since anxious children are anxious about being corrected, the truly compassionate thing that parents can do is to give their anxious child the chance to see that they can live through a correction. What is the gist of these lessons? That every one makes mistakes, that people don’t stay mad forever, that it doesn’t change your reputation, that there are ways of fixing what got messed up, it’s not set in stone, actually, it’s over and forgotten pretty quickly, and that it’s what we learn from those moments which really help us grow. Isn’t that what every parent wants their child to know?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Remember your purpose:
Parents may feel ambivalent because they imagine that discipline means you have to get angry and raise your voice, and dole out heavy consequences. Not so. It’s about coaching and training your child to learn, grow and be their best self. The purpose is not to judge, embarrass, or belittle; it’s about teaching—teaching solutions to help your child get “smarter” at making good choices themselves. You don’t want to deprive your child of that guidance and opportunity, right?
2. Mind your tone and volume:
Anxious children are very sensitive to tone and easily sense that they are getting yelled at even if you’re talking in a normal tone. The more anxious they are, the less they’ll be able to tune into the conversation, so when you can, keep your volume low and your tone calm. If you do raise your voice or say things you wish you hadn’t, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice what you preach, i.e., apologize, and give yourself a second chance to restate what you really meant.
3. Let your child tell you what he or she did wrong:
What’s the best form of correction? When kids can correct themselves, and often anxious kids already know what they did wrong. So rather than tiptoeing trying to figure out the right way to talk to your child, just ask: “What do you think I’m going to say here?” or, “Can you use your mind-reading skills and guess what I’m thinking?” Then they can be the ones telling you what they’ve done wrong and instead of correcting them, you can commend them for already knowing the problem and you can talk together about how it happened and what to do about it.
Sharing the job of disciplining in this way—seeing it as a collaboration—lowers the anxiety in the household. Your child isn’t waiting to get in trouble, fearing the ax is about to fall; they learn over time that when they do make a less than optimal choice that they will not lose all their integrity in that moment. They don’t suddenly become a “bad kid”; they are a good kid who knows what they did wrong, and the task is then to fix it or learn from it.
4. Stay away from language of blame: focus on behavior:
Rather than saying, You should have…. or, This was your fault! talk about what happened, what they were thinking, and what they would do next time. Focus on why this particular choice was not the best one, rather than suggesting globally that they are a “bad” person for making it.
5. Give feedback “sandwich style”:
If you need to correct your child, soften the delivery with an empathy sandwich: first the bread: “I know you are upset, and that you didn’t want this to happen,” then put in the meat: “And now you know that the next time if you want to use the glue gun, you need to ask me first,” and end with another empathic statement: “I know that you usually make good decisions and this is now something else you’ve learned.”
6. Teach your child to fact check their worry:
Anxious kids’ perceptions about risks are typically off base. They are ever concerned about detentions and going to the principal’s office—experiences they will likely never have, or that you “hate them” or “don’t love them anymore” all because worry has said a “what if” to them about it. When your child is upset ask them to “tell on worry”—and say what worry is telling them about the situation. Then have them “fact check” those fears by taking them one by one and deciding whether worry’s ideas are true or false based on what they really believe about that situation.
7. Have a worry-proof apology policy:
Many anxious children over-apologize—saying sorry for things that they didn’t even do, or even if they did, they can’t apologize enough. Help your child limit their apologies. Thank them for the apology, but explain that one is enough, and they’re going to be smarter than their worry and stick to that. To bring in levity, if they feel like they have to keep apologizing because worry is pressuring them to do so, they can say a silly word instead of sorry, like “spinach” or “broccoli” as in, “Mom, I’m really spinach about forgetting my social studies book!” Watch the mood lighten.
For kids who have the opposite problem and feel so bad about what they’ve done that they can’t begin to apologize because it feels like they are apologizing for themselves as a human being and not just this one small thing that happened, don’t demand an apology right away. Help them bring the infraction down to size in their mind. Start with empathy: I know you are really upset about this, it feels really big to you, but this is just one thing, one day, let’s keep it small. We can talk about it when you’re ready.
8. Teach kids what changes and what doesn’t: Talk about trends and outliers:
Part of why anxious kids get so upset when they do something wrong is that they think that people will be mad at them forever and they’ll never feel better. To counter the idea that they are now a bad person or that people won’t trust them because of what happened, draw a “chart” representing all the days that people trusted them and they were happy with their behavior with many, many dots across the top of the chart. Then draw a dot for the one or two days when they made a mistake. Help them see that the one down dot is an exception, a fluke, an outlier, not what is usual for them, and that when people are making predictions, they go with the trends not the outliers.
9. Reparations rather than consequences:
You want your child to learn that mistakes can be fixed, and so while there may be a place for consequences, look for the opportunities to offer your child the chance to fix, repair, or help out instead. It will counteract the “time out” they have put themselves in. You might have a task in mind directly related to the situation (helping to organize the snack drawer if they took one without asking), or you could ask your child what they could do to help out—even keeping a chore jar that they could choose from for this circumstance. Ask for their input: “Is there something you’d like to do to help out that will help you feel part of things again?”
10. Keep expectations high, but your understanding of mistakes flexible:
Authoritative parents have high expectations for their children’s behavior, but their goal is not to have children feel afraid of them. The goal is for kids to internalize a system of right and wrong so that they’ll know better the next time, and will feel good about making a different choice. The parenting stance most conducive to supporting confident, responsible children is to have high expectations, but also high warmth and what is called autonomy-granting. Believe that your child is capable of making good choices, and when they don’t, approach them with warmth and flexibility and the belief that they know what they did wrong and how to fix it. You can fill in as needed, but this rounding up in your view of your child will help them to do the same for themselves.
So the next time your anxious child makes a mistake, take a deep breath, encourage your child to do the same, and by talking it through, give your child the gift of seeing that there is life on the other side of this moment. You are the best person for the job. And while your child may not thank you for it, seeing them less afraid will be all the thanks you need.
1. Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, Revised and Updated Edition (2014) by Tamar Chansky
2. The Whole-Brained Child (2010) by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne