You'll be fine! How many times have you said that to your child? One hundred times? One thousand? I promise I'll be there to get you. You're not going to throw up. It isn't going to rain. There won't be any dogs. Just call me if you need me.
But here's the thing – no matter how many times you've reassured your anxious child, it isn't enough. She needs to hear you say it one more time: to promise, pinky-swear. And still, it isn't enough.
Anxiety is characterized by the inability to tolerate uncertainty. Those dreaded "what if's" – What if I don't feel well? What if you aren't there? What if I don't like it...I miss you...I get bitten...we lose power...something goes very, very wrong? You can tell your child that none of these things will happen, and still her anxiety comes back with...but what if it does?
There are 3 classic thinking mistakes inherent in anxiety:
- Overestimating probability (the bad thing that might happen, will happen)
- Overestimating magnitude (it will be catastrophic)
- Underestimating ability to cope (I totally cannot handle this bad thing)
Helping children recognize and correct these thinking mistakes is far more powerful than providing repeated reassurance. I use a method called The 3 Questions. Here's how it works:
When a child is anxious (fretting, asking for reassurance), help her think through:
- What is your worry saying? Kids often feel anxious without knowing why. They'll say they don't feel well, or that something is boring, or they just don't want to do it. Help your child pin down what they are actually worrying about.
- How likely is that? Help your child estimate probability. You don't have to get fancy; simply ask Is the bad thing likely to happen, or unlikely? How do you know?
- If whatever your child is worrying about is unlikely ask What is more likely to happen? If what she is worrying about is likely (i.e., I'm going to miss you) ask What can you do to help yourself?
Pose each of these questions, in turn. Or better yet, have your child write them on an index card so she can refer to the questions, herself. This type of logical, sequential thinking makes it easier for kids to evaluate their worries, recognizing and correcting thinking mistakes.
Your role is to stop reassuring and instead prompt your child to use The 3 Questions. Say, That sounds like a Worry; let's think about those 3 Questions. Encourage your child to answer the questions herself (rather than having you provide the answers). Your aim is to help your child internalize the sequence of questions and, importantly, learn how to answer them herself. Then, and only then, will she be able to recognize, That's the Worry talking to me; the Worry doesn't know what it's talking about; I don't have to listen. Won't that feel good?!