About four days before our daughter went off to camp, she started to show signs that she was feeling worried. What if I don’t get the roommate I wanted? What if it is not as much fun as in the past? What do you think we are going to do?

Not quite having all the answers myself, I did my best to reassure her. When children begin their sentence with “what if,” this is one of the classic signs they are feeling nervous and ambivalent about the future. Offering reassurance and encouragement can go a long way, however, applying these three things can be very effective at providing both you and your child more ease.

Feeling vs. Reacting

The words what if are a sign your child is imagining a negative outcome in his mind. You could try reflective listening, such as: “Sounds like you’re feeling nervous about the sleeping arrangements.” You’ll know if this was a great strategy when it leads to gathering more information.

However, in some cases this approach can backfire and get your child even more upset. As your parenting skills develop, it will be important for you to begin to notice the difference between a feeling and a behavior.

If your child is feeling worried you might hear trepidation in his voice and notice it in his body language (e.g. head or eyes down). On the other hand, if your child is reacting he may have a sharper, more demanding voice tone or appear out of sorts (e.g. nail biting). In other words, worry can be either a reaction, a feeling, or both. The reality is because your child’s brain and body are still developing it is likely to be both. Applying the following suggestions can help:

Tune into your emotions first

When your child is upset your parenting radar can go up. As a result, you automatically tune into what your child is feeling (worry). Although this seems like a natural, loving thing to do, without awareness a parent can feed (contribute to) their child’s stress and anxiety. This is because what you focus on tends to expand. In other words, by focusing on your child’s fear it may actually get bigger.

Instead, take a moment to pause and tune into your own emotions. Feel your own discomfort (sensations) first and allow your body to fully digest the experience before responding (you can do this with a simple breathing exercise: inhale and inflate your abdomen; slowly exhale tugging navel in toward your spine). This allows you to respond from a state of awareness. Tuning into your emotions first gives you the ability to listen and honor your child’s process (learning to move through fear) without reactivity (the need to fix or rescue).

Avoid making predictions

When children are worried you may be tempted to make predictions either silently or out loud in your mind. Like children, parents also can imagine the worst case scenario, for example: Oh, no. I can picture my child upset, calling home from camp right now, or I can see my child complaining about his teacher now.

When you make predictions, you are in fact visualizing a negative or fearful outcome. Keep in mind, the body does not know the difference between what you imagine and what is real so it is likely it will react as if it is already happening. When you find yourself forecasting the future, take a moment to pause, breathe, and feel your feet on the ground. By bringing yourself back into the present moment you are choosing to respond from a place where fear does not exist.

Believe in your child

To believe in your child means to have faith in their abilities. Trust that your child already has everything he needs to move through these uncomfortable moments. Awareness is your child’s greatest tool. This is not to say he couldn’t use a hand, hug, or encouragement, but your focus should be on strengthening your child’s abilities rather than being nervous about his weaknesses.

After applying the first two suggestions you might say something like, “It can be uncomfortable to try new things or meet new people, but I’m confident you can do it.” 

This is also a good time to remind him of past experiences he has overcome, things that started out challenging (e.g. making friends) or even scary which he was able to do in the end.

Finally, worried kids, just like worried adults, benefit from having a plan. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. When children feel like they have options they are more likely to stick with or give something a try.