When Healthy Caution Becomes Anxiety
Lately, my little guy has been a little timid in new ways. Most notably, the desire to be held when he’s anywhere near something that could “push him down” like cars, the train at the zoo, a big dog, a bike...
While this new development can feel a little unsettling, it’s actually a positive thing for a child to begin developing a new sense of awareness and understanding of their surroundings. When we’ve told my son for months and months, “hold our hand in the parking lot, we need to keep you safe” and now he has gained a better understanding of what could happen, he could get “pushed down,” it’s a sign that he is synthesizing information and learning from experiences. It’s our job to recognize how and why this is happening and help him learn the nuances of danger. Yes, true, cars can push you down but holding an adult’s hand or looking around can keep you safe.
The goal needs to be to help our children both understand dangers and exercise appropriate caution AND live a life free from unnecessary fear and worry.
How do we Validate Fears AND Prevent Unnecessary Worry?
1. Practice being aware of your child’s developing thoughts and what they’re communicating (”clinging to my leg is telling me that my child is feeling unsafe right now”)
2. Validate their concerns and empathize with them (“yeah, that dog does seem scary”).
3. Tell them how you’re going to keep them safe, or remind them how that they know to keep themself safe (”let’s ask before we pet her so we know if she’s friendly”).
1. What’s Going on Developmentally?
Children begin to become more aware of themselves and the world around them in toddlerhood. They begin to be able to understand some cause-and-effect and the ability to predict what could happen (although impulse control takes much, much longer to develop) and with those developing skills, they may also become more afraid of certain things.
For example, as a child begins to learn more and more about the world, they may learn that dogs can bite and, when they used to be fearless around dogs, are now timid and shy and cling to you around dogs. This is a healthy way of a child learning from and reacting to new information.
When we don’t validate a child’s fear and follow with the opportunity to process it or problem solve, children don’t get the opportunity to learn and move on. Therefore, these developing fears may stick around and torment a child’s thoughts. If we allow children to process and learn more about the dangers around them with actual information and compassion, we help them release the extra fear.
How We Can Help Children Develop Healthy Caution
We can really help our children by naming feelings (“name it to tame it”), validating what they’re saying and feeling, offering some help, and being aware the language we use and how we respond to difficult situations ourselves.
Children are little sponges and they’re constantly learning from people, especially people they love and trust. For that reason, we need to practice being mindful of the subliminal and obvious messages we’re sending our children. Therefore, it does them a service to mind our language. For example, constantly telling a child to ”be careful” and “watch out!” can make them more likely to develop an exaggerated sense of caution. Similarly, we help our children learn bravery and safety when we demonstrate it ourselves; the best way is to narrate what we’re doing when trying something new or unsettling and when we’re being safe (“I’m looking both ways before crossing the road” as an example of being safe and, “it’s ok to get dirty, we’ll just wash up when we go inside” when a child is bothered by dirt).
“You’re feeling a little scared of the big dog. Yeah, dogs can seem scary and it’s good to ask the owner before we touch a dog. This dog’s owner said she’s friendly and it’s safe to pet her gently. I’ll help to keep you safe, do you want to pet the dog with me?”
Some children will try something with your help (and your patience) while others still want to hang back. Both responses are healthy and should be respected.
Some children begin showing signs of “anxiety” as early as their toddler years but most of the time, they’re just working on figuring out how this world works and we do them a great service by being respectful and understanding.
Most importantly, we help our children work through fears when we take them seriously and engage with them. In a similar way, we also must try not to belittle or shame a child for their concerns. That’ll teach them that you aren’t safe to share worries with, and they’ll learn to feel shame for their emotions...
Here are a few more tips:
🚫Don’t call them a baby or use comparisons to shame they or try to convince them to feel differently
✅Do stay calm and let them share their thoughts. Pause and respond with empathy and sincerity.
🚫Don’t dismiss, “oh come on, that’s silly!”
✅Do validate, “yeah, I see why you’re nervous to try it. I wonder if you’d like to try with my help?”
✅Do scaffold to help them learn, “it seems scary to go up on your own, what if you put one foot right there? And now the other”
✅Do teach them to understand the grey area “it’s confusing because sometimes we can’t touch hot things and sometimes things look hot but they’re safe to stand close to. I’ll let you know when it’s safe.”
Remember to follow your instincts and use the language that works best for your family. And, as always, reach out to me if you need specific advice or if your child seems to be struggling with persistent or intense fears. Read more about my services at www.leahfrankel.com