Building Self-worth in the Anxious Child

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For today’s Parenting Weekend post we have Grace from My Divine Blessings sharing with us.

Grace is a wife, homeschooling mom, doula, pastor’s kid, and writer. She currently resides in southern Oregon with her husband and three gorgeous children, where they enjoy walks in the woods, wading in the river, reading good books, and attending a diverse and compassionate church.


Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder are nervous. They are concerned about everything. Trying to figure out what to wear in the morning can send them into a fit of tears. Difficulty with an art project might end with screaming and running into another room. Because of this, they are very hard on themselves and have trouble differentiating between what is, and is not, worthy of their time, energy, and emotion. So even the small things that we adults think are “no big deal” are a very big deal to these children. The things we are able to shrug away and try again are like darts in the heart of the anxious child, draining away their sense of worth.

Communicating self-worth to these children is very challenging. If you add learning disorders (such as ADHD or Dyslexia) to the mix—which often accompany Anxiety—you have the recipe for a very difficult time with learning, and the strong likelihood that the child will think very little of herself.

So how does a parent convince their Anxious child that they are worthy?
The answer lies in the little things. Look for opportunities throughout the day to say encouraging things to your child.

“Wow, you did that all by yourself! Look how clever you are!”

“It was so nice of you to help your sister. You’re an awesome helper!”

“That was very compassionate of you to help that boy at the park.”

It takes practice—and focus—to develop this skill. Even with the help of a trained family counselor, I still have to work hard and remind myself to say those little things throughout the day.

Not only do these small gestures have a positive impact on your child’s self-worth, but they also encourage better behavior all around. The more you pay attention to the good things—kindness, patience, compassion, helpfulness, thinking things through—the more they will want to emulate those traits. The more you praise for those things, the more they will want to become those things.

But that is only the first step—the foundation. There must also be a plan of action for those times when, despite all your encouragements, your child is still convinced that they are unworthy. For my daughter, she is convinced that she cannot read. Despite the fact that, when we are doing our reading lessons, she is able to sound out small words, she still has a knee-jerk response of “I can’t read” when someone asks her to sound out a word. When she says that, I calmly acknowledge her feelings, but I don’t give room for her to dwell on them; I counter it with the truth and encouragement, followed by a swift redirection into action. For example, if she says she cannot read, I will say in response, “I know reading can be difficult for you [empathizing with her frustration], but remember how you sounded out that last word? [Reminding her of the truth.] You can sound out this word, too! [Encouragement.] Let’s figure it out together. [Taking action.]”

Her feelings are validated, but she is pointed to reality (rather than her fears), and she is given a little boost before getting back to the task at hand.

Some days are harder than others, and sometimes she is already in such a state of anxiety that even my evidence based, therapist-approved methods don’t work. And when that happens, I am simply there for her. I listen, I hug, and I use reflective listening (echoing what she says without judging or fixing) to get her back to a calm state. Whatever the day—whether it’s smooth and easy, has just a small hiccup, or is full of meltdowns—I am prepared to face it with these tried-and-true methods. Having this toolbox is absolutely vital to keeping my calm and helping my child to get through each day, while also giving her confidence and courage to build her sense of worth.

Having overcome the initial trial, and now encouraged to do what they set out to do, our children can grow in confidence and self-worth. Though it is not accomplishment that gives them worth, they can be convinced of their abilities and their intrinsic value by seeing that with perseverance and tenacity, they can overcome those difficulties. And when we acknowledge the little things they do every day which are character traits (not accomplishments), they start to see, over time, their worth as children of God and as individuals.

Their most important sense of worth, of course, is that of belonging to Christ and being His creation. That they are not perfect and do not always succeed is not where their focus should lie. Their focus ought to be on this fact:

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…” (Ephesians 2:10)

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