Childhood anxiety has reached epidemic proportions. I’m convinced that the increase in anxiety is linked to an increase in external praise of children in general.
Think about it: The very act of praising a person has put the receiver of praise in an inferior position. The parent is judging the child and determining the worth of that child. If the child is performing well, then the child receives the parental approval via praise. But . . . what does the child assume if the praise is absent, or, worse, replaced by criticism? This dynamic, although well-meaning, can be devastating to some children. The child feel that their worth is conditioned on their superior performance. Not good.
Although many forms of pathological anxiety exist, many children and adolescents are burdened with performance anxiety and fear of failure. In these cases, many parents heap praise and encouragement on their children to counter the worries. This might be making the problem worse.
The cause for performance anxiety or fear of failure may stem from core issues of worth. If the child has an underlying feeling of worthlessness at his or her core, that child may be trying to cope by being an overachiever. The child adopts “performance-based worth” to compensate for feelings of worthlessness.
Which works. Until the child fails.
The core issue of worthlessness is the problem. The child’s attempt at coping by being a high achiever is a tenuous solution, at best. And they know it. Performance-based worth creates immense performance anxiety and fear of failure. The child only feels okay if they are performing well. Failure triggers the core issue of worth and can be overwhelming. This anxiety can start with athletics or school work and spread to many situations and subjects.
As parents, our first impulse is to try to convince our children that their anxieties are unfounded. Maybe we say, “Get over it Suzy! There’s nothing to worry about! The judge won’t bite you!” This tactic is a mistake. What the parent is doing is dismissing the child’s felt emotion. The child feels profoundly alone in his or her distress. And confused. They know how they feel, but a trusted adult is telling them they are “crazy” for feeling anxious. Not good.
As parents, we might use another tactic — praise and encouragement. In an attempt to convince the child out of the anxiety, the parent might say, “But you are so good at soccer! I’m sure you’ll make a goal this game! Don’t worry!” Unwittingly, the parent has heaped greater expectations for a superior performance on the child. Again, not good. This strategy will only exacerbate the anxiety.
What to do?
First, acknowledge and empathize with the child’s emotion of anxiety. Encourage them to talk about it. You can say, “Where do you feel the anxiety? In your tummy? In your head? I’m so sorry this is happening for you. Anxiety is no fun.” Then listen to your child. Follow up on his or her line of thought. Maybe: “So you feel worried that you might fall and everyone will laugh at you? And your coach will bench you? That DOES sound tough. What else sets off some anxiety?” As a parent you want to actually ELICIT the conversation about worries, fears, and anxiety and prove that you can be with them in their distress. You won’t reject or abandon them when they are struggling. This fact can comfort and support your child when they need you the most. It will soothe their fears and often, you don’t actually need to solve their problem! You just be the safe place for them to verbalize their concerns and they often will work it out on their own.
Second, you can reassure your child that you love them no matter what. You can say something like, “Honey, you could flunk the test and strike out the rest of your life and I would still love you. You are worthwhile because of who you are, not what you do. You are my child, and I will always love you no matter what. When you fail, I will have your back. You are safe with me!”
Can you feel how safe a child would feel with this parent? The anxiety lowers significantly because this parent makes it safe to fail.
Here’s the kicker: When a child feels safe to fail, that child will take risks to grow and actually make more progress than a child who is petrified of failure. Sure, parental pressure can scare a child into performing well, but over the long term, this strategy often backfires in significant ways. Much healthier is the child who feels parental acceptance regardless of success or failure. With this safe foundation, parental encouragement takes its rightful place as a healthy source of support.
Go easy on the praise! Your child will do better without it.