How to Handle an Anxious Child: Address Their Vulnerability

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Good Inside" by Becky Kennedy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do kids express vulnerability? Why do some children pretend to cry?

Most parenting advice sees children’s behavior as a problem to be fixed through time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations. But, Dr. Becky Kennedy argues that these strategies jeopardize your connection with your children. That’s a high price to pay for band-aid strategies.

Read more to learn how to handle an anxious child by addressing the real issue behind their anxieties, fears, and tears.

How to Handle an Anxious Child

Fears, anxiety, and crying—even “fake” crying—are expressions of vulnerability. Kennedy explains that, when children perceive a threat, their bodies feel fear or anxiety. When they feel sadness, they cry. When they feel disconnected from their caregivers, they pretend-cry to secure that connection.

Kennedy argues that parents often shut down these expressions of vulnerability because they trigger uncomfortable feelings related to their own vulnerability. You might try to convince your child to stop being sad, anxious, or afraid, or even shame her for feeling that way. But, this teaches her that these feelings are wrong and to be avoided, which leaves her unprepared for real life. Instead, Kennedy offers this advice for how to handle an anxious child: Support her through those feelings so she develops the tools to work through them in the future.

(Shortform note: Discomfort with vulnerability can show up in different ways. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown argues that people who get triggered by vulnerability might lash out in one of four ways: They might dismiss other people’s experiences, judge other people’s actions, adopt an “I don’t care” attitude, or deliberately hurt others with their words or behaviors.)

To help your child learn to work through her vulnerable feelings, Kennedy suggests the following tools: 1) confidence-building, 2) validation and empathy, and 3) playfulness.

Using Confidence-Building, Validation, & Empathy

Kennedy suggests starting by naming the feelings your child is experiencing and letting her know that it’s okay to feel them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Then, help her brainstorm strategies to deal with a fear or anxiety, and practice the strategies with her when you know a challenging situation is coming up. Share similar feelings you’ve had in the past and how you worked through them. Let her know you’re glad she’s sharing this important information with you. 

(Shortform note: As your child matures, you might introduce new strategies to help her build her confidence to face her fears with logic while still empathizing and acknowledging that her fears are valid. One strategy to consider is Tim Ferriss’s “fear-setting,” which he describes in The 4-Hour Workweek. To fear-set, you write down your fears, the worst-case scenario that might result from them, and potential solutions to deal with them.)

Using Playfulness

Take advantage of your child’s favorite stories and characters to start conversations about emotions. For example, Kennedy recommends pointing out when fictional characters cry and talking about how they must be feeling, or role-playing challenging situations using your child’s stuffed animals. (Shortform note: The authors of The Whole-Brain Child say that besides helping your kid deal with her own emotions, thinking about how others feel helps develop empathy and compassion.)

How to Handle an Anxious Child: Address Their Vulnerability

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Becky Kennedy's "Good Inside" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:

  • A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
  • Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
  • Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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