05/11/2016 02:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Number 1 Skill to Help Your Anxious Kiddo


When the bag of microwave popcorn burned at my daughter's school and the fire alarms went off her anxiety about fires began. It's a loud noise and they'd never held a fire drill before, so she didn't know what was going on or what to expect. She began crying in the morning before school; was afraid to go to the bathroom while at school in case the alarm went off and she was alone in there.

We brought her to therapy for a number of months and she and the therapist worked through the worst of her anxiety. We did nurturing, connecting activities and she and the therapist explored the content of her worries. But though it got a lot better, the fear of fires has stuck around and arises here and there. Through helping her work through this and the other 9-year-old fears that arise for her, I've realized a valuable tool I use as a therapist with my adult clients that I think most parents should know:

How to teach a child to work with their mind-chatter.

You see, worry is very frequently irrational and virtually always unhelpful. Think about the things YOU'VE worried about in the past. How many of those things actually happened? Anxiety, almost by definition, is about things that rarely come to pass. (And the sh$%t that DOES happen in our lives we often just don't even see coming--we just deal with it when it happens.) But how helpful has it been to you when someone's explained how unlikely your worries were to materialize? My bet is, not much.

Here's a conversation that I've gotten caught in:

H: Mama, what if there's a fire in our house?
Me: There's not going to be, but if there was, we'd put it out when it was small because we have smoke alarms and fire extinguishers.
H: But what if it got big anyway?
Me: Daddy and I would get you and get out of the house--but it's very unlikely.
H: But what if there's a fire in the hallway and you can't get me?
Me: There's not going to be a fire...but if there IS, I'll come get you.
H: But what if you can't get to me because of the fire?

If I was to promise her there'd never be a fire, she's not going to believe me. She's old enough to know that I can't control EVERYTHING (Goddess though I am). And her anxiety hooks itself onto the .05% chance and "what ifs" til the cows come home. That's anxiety's job. In fact, the MORE I try to explain why she shouldn't worry, the more she might subconsciously get the message that the person who's in charge (Mama) isn't vigilant enough to be looking out for danger.

We need to use the skills that Buddha so brilliantly explored and developed and recognize the Wizard-of-Oz-curtain-trick the mind plays on us all the time. We recognize and teach our kids that the mind tells scary stories--that's just what it does--and it's our job to notice when our minds are doing this and tell it "thank you" and "that's enough." Then a few moments later our minds will start telling the stories again and we say "thank you" and "that's enough." We learn that WE get to be in the driver's seat of our lives...not our minds. Lots of time we enjoy the mind's participation, and sometimes we notice the mind just isn't being helpful and we say "scat!" to its chitter-chatter messages.

This skill we're teaching is simple, but not easy. Our kids might say, "But what if this scary story is true?" Then we say, "That question is the sneaky mind trying to get back in the driver's seat." This is when we can also use our own physical calm and calming techniques (breathing, relaxation, etc.) to help our kiddos get out of their minds and into their bodies.

This isn't a magic wand to make all the worry go away, but let's be real--this is LIFE! Our job isn't to give our kids worry-free lives--it's to prepare them to be the most centered, empowered humans they can be in this messy world. And in my humble opinion, learning to work with the mind is one of the best ways to do this.