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How to respond to a child’s anxious moment

By Michael Grose & Dr Jodi Richardson 4 min read

How you can help your child stay calm rather than be overwhelmed or panicked by their thoughts and feelings.

Anxiety is contagious, so it’s easy for your own stress and worry to get in the way when responding to your anxious child. Remembering what’s important in the moment is so much harder when your own anxiety shows up because it interferes with decision-making. That’s why we’re so fond of the easy-to-remember acronym SOBER.

S Stop

O Observe

B Breathe

E Expand

R Respond

Stop

Multi-tasking can play a big part in parenting. Of an evening in a typical home there’s dinner to prepare and cook, maybe readers to listen to or homework to help with. There might be washing to hang out, bills to pay, emails to reply to and stories from the day to share. Many of these tasks are done at the same time. All families fall into these patterns at one time or another. It can so often feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.

We get it, and we’ve been there too. But what we can tell you is that multi-tasking is a misnomer. It’s not actually possible to do any two high-level thinking tasks at once. It feels like multi-tasking but it’s actually task switching. It happens so fast it feels like two things are happening at once. It’s like toggling quickly between two tabs open on your computer screen.

When it comes to parenting an anxious child, they need your full attention during anxious times. By providing them with your undivided attention, you’re in a much better position to respond in the helpful new ways you’re learning here. You don’t necessarily need to drop everything the instant your child needs you; it’s okay to say that you’re in the middle of doing something but that you’ll be with them in a moment. That way, when you are with them, it’s easier to be present and really listen. Multi-tasking also increases stress, and you probably already have enough of that too.

Observe

This is your opportunity to take in what’s actually happening. To be the observer. Observing the situation for what it is. It’s a simple idea, but not always easy. What’s your child doing at the moment? What is their behaviour telling you? What are you thinking about as this scene unfolds before you? Are you annoyed that this is happening again? Are you feeling impatient, wanting to step in and fix it so that it’s over with? Or are you feeling a sense of sadness that your child is suffering in this moment? Being able to take a mental step back and observe what’s going on under these circumstances is something that will take time. Please be compassionate and patient with yourself.

Breathe

Breathing deeply and slowly is the one way the relaxation response can be initiated and the fight-or-flight response can be dialled down. Taking a moment for a few breaths here is your way to settle any of your own stress and anxiety so that you’re in a good frame of mind to thoughtfully respond to what’s happening.

Expand

This next part of the SOBER approach refers to expanding your awareness to the possibilities in the moment. Where are you? What’s happening next? Are you in the best position to respond in the way you would like? If you’re already running late for an appointment and anxiety shows up, how can you respond in a way that keeps everyone moving forward without revisiting past habits of avoidance and reassurance? What are your options?

Respond

The very first sentence to pass your lips as a parent responding to an anxious child needs to be one of validation. This is your chance to say, "I get it."

Babies cry to let their parents know they need something. The needs of some babies become quite predictable, and so are easier to recognise and meet, as they follow the feed, play, sleep cycle, with nappy changes thrown into the mix. Their behaviour, in the form of crying, is a message expressing, among other things, "I’m hungry", "I’m tired", "I’m uncomfortable" or "I need hugs". The same holds true for anxious children. Their actions are a message to you as the parent.

They could be frustrated, angry, teary, keen to share their worries or wanting to avoid an anxiety-provoking situation. All of these are signs that they’re anxious, and what they need first and foremost is for you to recognise they’re in need and then communicate to them that their message is received. Here are some things you could say:

  • "I can see you’re feeling worried about going to the party."
  • "Thanks for telling me you’re feeling so nervous about the test. I get it."
  • "Oh I get it, you’re having the thought that no reply to your text means you must have done something wrong."
  • "I hear you."
  • "I know what that feels like."

All of these responses are examples of responding with empathy.

Bestselling author Dr Brené Brown explains how empathy is feeling with people. It’s about tapping into the same feeling within yourself and letting the other person know you understand because you’ve been there too (without turning the conversation onto yourself).

This is what anxious kids need from their parents. And if you’re not sure what to say in the moment, you can simply start by saying, "I’m so glad you told me."

It may take you a little practice to remember to put these thinking skills into play when you’re responding to your child’s anxiety. That’s perfectly fine. You’re human, and these situations can be upsetting and stressful. Eventually, though, it will become more automatic. Each time you practise using SOBER, you’re retraining your brain to respond in this helpful way.


Extracted, with permission, from Anxious Kids, by Michael Grose & Dr Jodi Richardson (Penguin Random House Australia, 2019).

Michael Grose is one of Australia's leading parenting and educational writers and speakers. Dr Jodi Richardson is an expert on anxiety having lived it and studied it. She is the co-creator of the Parenting Anxious Kids online course.


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