Welcome to Capable Kids Q&A, where you send me your dilemmas about lovingly nudging your kids towards a thriving can-do spirit, and I pull together the research, expertise, and wisdom out there to bring you encouragement and ideas. (Thank you for sending your great questions; keep them coming.)
Q: Last night my 3rd grader was getting really upset because he wasn’t recalling all the information he needed for a quiz he’s having today at school. I told him over and over that he’s a “hard worker” and he’s going to succeed because of that—whether or not he does well on this quiz or the next quiz or the next.
All the anxiety kids experience these days makes me so nervous! Just trying to ease that when it comes to my kid’s impulse to strive. I just kept reminding him that he works hard, and that’s his lifeboat. Believing that he’ll keep going no matter what and will eventually figure it out seemed to ease the pressure he was feeling a bit. What do you think?
A: Oh, man. It’s so hard for us parents when kids are having a tough time. I think we’ve all been there.
Before we talk strategies, let me start by saying that if a child has a diagnosable anxiety disorder, getting professional help is the appropriate step and can be tremendously helpful.
Now, back to your young perfectionist—one night of getting really upset doesn’t mean an anxiety disorder, and what you’re already saying to him is super helpful in terms of his approach to learning. We know from research, particularly that of psychologist Carol Dweck, that praising a child’s effort (“You worked so hard to figure that out!”) rather than their innate qualities (“You’re so smart!”) is connected with more persistence. When faced with a difficult task, children praised for their intelligence (“fixed mindset”) tend to perform more poorly than those praised for their efforts (“growth mindset”). To foster growth mindset, parents should also avoid treating failure as a negative outcome, says Dweck, and instead use it as a chance to help the child find new strategies.
I couldn’t help but notice this part of your question: “All the anxiety kids experience these days makes me so nervous!” I get that—experts have been sounding the alarm about a troubling increase in anxiety and other mental health challenges for kids. And none of us wants our family to be part of those statistics. But as we touched on in Capable Kids Q&A: Procrastinating Teen Artist, anxiety about anxiety isn’t particularly helpful, and it’s totally fine for our kids to be anxious sometimes. It’s part of life.
That said, it’s best if our own parental anxieties are under control—even if we sometimes have to pretend we’re calmer than we actually feel on the inside. When we project a quiet confidence that all will be well, that helps ground our kids. Parent anxiety, the research tells us, can exacerbate child anxiety, especially if we feel the need to fix the situation or try to make the source of the anxiety go away. Like child anxiety, parent anxiety should be addressed by a professional if it’s persistent or serious. But, in everyday life, here are a few ideas to try:
- Say out loud that you’re not worried about him, even if he is. I have a teen learning to drive, and he confessed feeling stress when driving for the first time with actual traffic. “Even if you were stressed—and I totally get that; it’s so normal—I wasn’t stressed. I knew you were going to be fine.” With your son, this is what you’re getting at when you say that working hard is his lifeboat—even if he’s stressed by a bump in the road now, YOU know that he’ll be fine in the long run, and he can lean a little on your confidence. (And I’m so glad that seemed to help!)
- Embrace your own imperfections. Every single day, usually multiple times a day, I (mostly) cheerfully say some variation of, “Oh well, I’m not perfect.” Luckily, I don’t have to try hard to find opportunities because I mess up all the time: I forgot to buy something at the grocery store; I broke a glass; I overcooked something. We don’t have to be happy that we screwed up, but we can model accepting that mistakes are part of life and that we will get another chance to try again tomorrow.
- Help them take the long view by telling stories. Talking about your own imperfections, Part 2: At our house, we find that talking about Mom and Dad’s childhood embarrassments, worries, and mistakes is reassuring (and sometimes funny!). Because they seem to think we actually have our act together now, I guess maybe they think there’s hope for them, too.
Too often, we adults don’t remember the hard parts of childhood; we tend to think it’s nothing but carefree play. But it can also be HARD sometimes, even under the most loving circumstances. As kids, everything is unfamiliar and new, and we may not be confident in our ability to meet life’s challenges. That’s why it’s our job as parents to be confident for our children when they aren’t yet, and to help them know that a little struggle is expected, manageable, and is actually helping them grow.
Good luck to you and your hard worker; as always, I’d love to hear how it goes!