I started suspecting my son had anxiety when he would complain of stomach aches at times completely unrelated to food or illness.
At first the aches would happen seemingly out of nowhere but the more I paid attention to them, the more I realized his tummy troubles came at times when he had to face something new, or when he had trouble making a decision, or when he was nervous about interacting with unfamiliar people. As his anxiety toward a situation grew, so would his symptoms. He could freeze up, refuse to move, refuse to speak, and at his worst begin crying, yelling and trying to run away so no one could see him.
Anxiety happens in children when their fears and worries (real or imagined) build up to a point that they cannot control. Intrusive thoughts about stressors crowd their minds until their natural fight or flight response takes over, leaving behind their ability to process situations rationally and calmly.
Since stress is a normal part of life, the question becomes: how can we help our children to cope when difficulties come their way? Recent research has shown that a solid tool for helping children to manage their feelings of anxiety is to build a Growth Mindset.
Growth Mindset and Its Impacts on Mental Health
“Growth Mindset” is a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading mindset researcher and psychologist, which refers to a person’s belief that their intelligence and abilities can change and be developed. It’s an important distinction between a person with a “Fixed Mindset” who believes that their intelligence and abilities can never improve beyond what they currently are.
When it comes to mental health, having a growth mindset has been shown to have long lasting positive effects on coping strategies for children with anxiety and depression, and can serve as a useful intervention tool towards bettering mental health.1
Growth Mindset strategies have been shown to help children improve their sense of self-esteem, motivation levels, as well as feelings of perceived control over their lives.2 This in turn allows children to recover more quickly when they face difficulties or stress, a concept known as resilience. Higher levels of resilience in children are strongly associated with fewer mental health problems.
Building a Growth Mindset
Developing a growth mindset in our children is multifaceted and involves a combination of active brain training, age and situational appropriate feedback and support, and an environment at home and school that supports growth mindset strategies. None of this happens in a day, but you can begin the process with your child by understanding a few core concepts:
1. Our brains are like plastic and can be molded and shaped over time.
With each new experience, the neurons inside our brain make new connections. We can influence and change those connections by the choices we make, the actions we take, and the words that we use to talk to ourselves. We have the power to help our brains grow!
2. We can change the way that we approach our lives.
When we believe that our brains can grow, challenges can become opportunities, failures or mistakes can become valuable lessons, and feelings of stress can become signals to try different strategies that help us move forward.
3. The feedback we give our brain has a huge impact on the connections our brain makes.
Speaking kindly and positively to ourselves helps our brain grow while speaking negatively or bashing ourselves helps our brain to stay stuck.
Strategies that Help Children Cope
Though every child is different, there were a few key growth mindset strategies that really helped make a difference for my son in how he learned to cope with his anxiety.
Name and understand their feelings.
Before a child can manage their emotions, they need to know how to identify and accept them. Coping is not about pretending that feelings of fear or worry don’t exist. It’s about accepting them, saying: “Yes, I feel afraid” and “This is why I feel afraid.”
When a child can learn to name what they are feeling and why, it puts them in a position of strength and sets them up to take control over the situation by implementing problem solving strategies.
When my son expressed he was feeling afraid of a particular situation, I would accept and acknowledge his feelings. Then I would ask him to name what specifically he was afraid of. Was it the amount of people? The noise? The fact he was entering through the front of the group instead of at the back where he could more easily blend in? This helped him to pinpoint his fears and begin thinking through ways to address them.
Work through potential problems and outcomes.
To help children feel like they have a sense of control, they need to learn to problem solve. Feelings of helplessness happen when we cannot see a path forward. But if we can train our brain to step back, look at the big picture, and work through possible outcomes, we can then see clearly the many options that lie in front of us and focus on the one thing we can control: our choices.
With my son, this looked like asking him to posit what he thought would happen if his fear actually occurred. Then we brainstormed various potential solutions to that situation. “What could you do if such and such happened? How could you help yourself be okay in this kind of situation? What can you do to keep moving towards your goal?”
Talking through scenarios with me helped my son to see different solutions that he could choose. Over time, and with practice, his emotional overwhelm in scary moments decreased as he grew more confident in his ability to navigate stressful situations and implement strategies on his own, Alhamdulilah, all thanks and praise to Allah.
Make small language changes for a big impact.
Sometimes what stops our children (and us, too!) in their tracks is their own negative self-talk. Teaching your children to make small adaptations to their self-talk helps their mind to reframe situations towards the positive.
If your child usually tells themselves “I can’t do it,” teach them to say “I can’t do it YET.” That small change of adding the word YET opens up a world of possibilities for growth and helps the brain reframe a situation to see that with more learning or more time or new skills, a goal CAN be achieved.
Phrases like “I’m no good at this” can become “I need more practice” to help children train their brains to be open to keep trying at something new.
“It’s too hard” is one my son used to say often right before shutting down emotionally and giving up. We switched it out for “I can try again later” to help him acknowledge that he may need a break but could most definitely come back to something when he was feeling fresh and ready.
Useful Growth Mindset Tools for Parents and Children
If you have a child who lives with anxiety or simply needs help learning to deal with life’s stressors, try one of the following tools:
Big Life Journal creates printable packages and journals for families to help train children in Growth Mindset concepts. They have options for preschoolers, children aged 5-12, and teenagers.
Mindset Works offers free and paid for options for parents and educators to help instill Growth Mindset principles with the children they work with.
The Growth Mindset Coach is a good activity based book for educators, homeschooling or otherwise, to help guide children towards developing growth mindset strategies
Melissa Barreto is a home-educating mother of five children and the Co-Founder of Wildflower Homeschool Collective, a homeschool organization based in Northern New Jersey.