Child anxiety is a difficult situation to handle, and it’s one that can be made infinitely worse if you or your child engage in negative talk patterns as you try to confront the issue. If your child has developed acute nervousness over some issue – such as going to school or riding the bus – her frustration can lead her into a never-ending cycle of harmful thoughts that will do nothing except harm her self-esteem. As your frustration with her fears increases, you may also lapse into negative talk patterns – without intending to cause harm. But these damaging opinions – blurted out in the heat of the moment – can make a bad situation even worse.

What is negative talk? Well, a child may begin saying things like, “I know I am stupid to be scared of school.” Or, “I hate myself.” A parent may say something like, “Why can’t you just get over it?” Or “Only babies are scared of school.” Basically, both dialogues reinforce this underlying feeling that a child is somehow lacking because she is scared of a certain situation. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and negative talk – whether from parents or from children – should not be tolerated.

Instead, you should focus on helping your child overcome her fears through positive thought processes. To do so, it’s important to understand the role that fear plays in touching off physical and emotional responses in the body. Once you understand how fear “works,” you can implement several strategies that can reverse the negative talk patterns, making a more positive environment for permanent change.

Understanding the Process of Fear

Negative talk has been linked to low self-esteem, poor performance in school, depression, and difficulty in making and retaining friends. So if you want to help your child live a happier and more productive life, cutting negative talk out of your family’s dialogue is crucial. But before we go there, let’s talk more about the physical and emotional impact that fear has on your child. Once you understand how the fear process works, it’s easier to understand how to combat it.

Let’s say your child experiences a negative situation while riding the bus home. Maybe another kid calls her names or teases her in some way. In a sense, your child feels trapped. She’s on a moving vehicle, so she cannot get away from the source of the teasing. Telling the bus driver could lead to even more ridicule. So the fight or flight response kicks in – your child’s heart rate will increase, her breathing will become more rapid and shallow, and she starts sweating profusely. She makes it through this incident, but the next day, when confronted with riding the bus home, she will likely experience the same panic attack, even if no threat has yet been perceived. Why is this?

The fear response in children is very intense, and frightening, especially since kids don’t really understand the adrenaline response and may be afraid of her own racing heartbeat, her own sweaty palms. The fight or flight response creates neural pathways in the brain, “shortcuts” that help her response kick in more intensely and rapidly when she meets with a threat. This is a remnant of our caveman ancestors who needed this kind of shortcut for basic survival. Your child’s own response will continue to get more intense and rapid unless you step in and help her break the cycle.

Breaking the Negative Talk Cycle

As a parent, you hold a tremendous amount of influence in your children’s lives. How you react to stress and how you talk about yourself – and to your own children – become a model that your children will perpetuate. So it’s crucial that as the leader of the family, you put the kibosh on negative talk, focusing instead on dealing with stress in a positive manner.

Here are five easy ways you can stop negative talk:

  1. Show your love to your family both in words and in deeds on a regular basis.
  2. Seek out opportunities to praise your son or daughter for achievements or good behavior.
  3. Find ways to praise your children when talking to others – especially if your child is in earshot, but not a part of your conversation.
  4. Discuss appropriate ways to deal with incidents that provoke negative self-talk, and decide on which ways that all family members will respond.
  5. Stop negative talk as soon as it starts. Remind your children of the “family deal” you struck—no negative talking allowed!

Dealing with Stress as a Family

You can be wonderfully effective in dealing with stress if you encourage the whole family to get involved. Not only is it a helpful way of helping your child break free of anxiety now, you’re also teaching her an important life skill that will benefit her health and wellbeing forever.

So how can you deal with stress as a family? First, it helps to encourage all your family members to talk freely and frankly about their issues. Maybe having “family talk time” during dinner is good, or if you want a more dedicated space, try having family discussions in the evening before bedtime. You can also have group stress relief activities such as:

  • Yoga – scientifically proven to reduce stress, and even little kids can give the downward dog pose a try.
  • Meditation – the family that meditates together stays together, right? You can lead your entire family through brief guided meditation sessions.
  • Exercise – besides helping your family stay healthy and strong, exercise is perfect for stress reduction.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – you can teach your family members how to tense and release their muscles, leading to deep relaxation and stress relief.
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing – this breathing exercise can help halt the “fight or flight” response, so teaching it to your child on a regular basis will give her the tools she needs to fight off a panic attack.

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