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The Subtle Messages You’re Sending Your Kid

Could you unintentionally send messages that are contributing to your child’s anxiety?

Sometimes it feels like our kids aren’t listening to us. Perhaps you’ve reminded them repeatedly to bring their water bottle home at the end of their school day, and they keep forgetting to. You’ve told them to put their dishes in the sink three times, and they are piling up in their room again!

While our kids may not always hear us, in many ways, they’re always listening! Without realizing it, you send your child subtle cues throughout your interactions with them. Children learn by observation; how you respond, what you say, and even the energy you project impact them. You may be unintentionally causing them to worry, stress, or feel anxious.

Anxiety has three components:

  • Cognitive–i.e., Negative thoughts, worry

  • Emotional–i.e., Feelings of fear or dread- usually stemming from a thought

  • physiological–i.e., Stomach ache, heart palpitations, sweating, etc.

To simplify, worry happens in your mind, stress occurs in your body, and anxiety happens in both your mind AND body.

Some very common ways parents can send the wrong messages to their child while unintentionally contributing to a rise in their worry, stress, or anxiety:

  • Providing constant corrective feedback. Pointing out mistakes and offering too much corrective feedback can send the message that mistakes aren’t allowed, that growth and learning should come on the first try, and that things should be perfect. Over-correction leads children to feel a lot of pressure and deprives them of seeing the good they’ve done or their efforts.

  • Fixing their mistakes. When you redo something they’ve tried (like refolding the towels they just put away, remaking their bed, or taking over when they’re trying to flip a pancake), you are sending them the message that they are incompetent and incapable of managing on their own.

  • Predicting the future. Fortune-telling is when you predict what will happen; however, since the future is out of our control, there is no way you can predict how reality will take shape, even seconds from now. “If you don’t study for this test, you won’t do well on it, and it’ll limit your chances of getting into the enrichment class next year!” This type of predictive language creates fear-based motivation and can lead to stress and anxiety.

What can you do instead?

  • Allow your child to problem-solve to develop resiliency, strengthen coping skills, and build confidence. Give them space to figure things out and offer them support, so they know they can count on you for help with navigating and brainstorming ideas alongside them rather than for them. Equip them with the courage to tackle problems so they feel competent in handling situations that will inevitably arise.

  • Focus on a growth-mindset attitude, letting your child know that mistakes are normal when learning and that they’re great opportunities. Mistakes are how we learn! Ensure you also have the same dialogue toward yourself when you make a mistake. Remember, they’re always paying attention to us!

  • Teach your child that discomfort is normal when faced with uncertainty and that it’s OK! This is a tough one for all of us! Learning how to tolerate feelings of discomfort of not knowing how something will turn out is an important lesson. Focus on being in the present moment and what can be controlled. “We can’t know how you’ll do on the test AND studying for it will help you feel more prepared. Learning anything takes lots of practice and all you can control is what you can do to feel proud of how you prepared yourself.”

We are all human, and we make mistakes. We can all expect to send unintentional messages to others occasionally. Awareness of the messages you could be sending your child is the first step in reframing our thoughts. You can even model when you’ve caught yourself falling into these traps and say aloud how you’re reframing your mindset. “There I go predicting the future with that statement. I can’t know how things will turn out because I’m no fortune-teller!” Rather than being hard on yourself, recover quickly; humor always helps. Our children will begin to internalize your messages and reframe their thoughts over time. The biggest thing is letting your child know you’re also learning and growing. It’s a lifelong process!

Check out this article to read more about worry, stress, and anxiety!

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Written by Jenny Drennan (M. Ed., ET/P) and Geneva Walsh (M. Ed.)

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