The “What If” Child

by Lynn on December 11, 2011

Every one of us has experienced some form of anxiety. It is a normal physiological reaction which stems from the days our ancestors were faced with the likes of prehistoric lions and bears while they hunted among them and had to choose to fight or flee.  It is when we visual our prehistoric predators or anything that produces fear within us, which creates the real problem and annoyance.

Some people are predisposed to anxiety concerns by their genetic makeup while many develop it through experiences which create fear and uncertainty.  Often times, those who regularly experience anxiety also typically had caregivers who role modeled their worrisome thoughts to create an automatic reaction of continuous concern.  In children, anxiety presents itself in the form of frequent nightmares, not being able to fall asleep alone, racing thoughts they can’t identify, but view as scary, not wanting to try new things, obsessive, compulsive behaviors and worrisome, what if questions, thoughts and comments.  The anxious child may ask a lot of questions looking for reassurance.  They want to ensure their environment is safe.  They may feel sick often, avoid trying new things without assistance, or use behaviors that distance them from people.

Anxiety, plain and simple, is a negative habitual thought pattern.  Instead of saying positive, uplifting thoughts to ourselves, we are continuously expressing negative, fearful thoughts to ourselves and our bodies and minds react accordingly.  If someone gives us a compliment and we buy into it, we may have a feeling of joy and excitement and increased energy.  If someone tells us we’ve done something poorly and we own it, we feel sad, angry, embarrassed and have decreased energy.  Our anxiety or joy comes from the same thoughts we tell ourselves.  So if our negative thinking is a bad habit, how do we fix it? By creating a new habit that replaces the old. And how can we help our children? By teaching them new habits that work for them.

I have a “what if” child.  Every time she “what if’s” the next catastrophe, I “what if” the opposite.

“What if my tooth falls out and I swallow it?’ She’ll say.  “What if your tooth comes out while your in school and you get one of those little treasure chests and you get to give it to the tooth fairy that night?”  I’ll respond.  Feels much better.

“What if I never get to play with Jenny again because she’ll be mad that I didn’t call her back?”  She’ll ask.  “What if you see Jenny in school and let her know that you were unable to call her back, but you’d like to play soon and will ask your mom to set up a play date?”  I’ll answer.

Those are the little ones.  A few weeks ago it was the racing thoughts before bed. She has never been a good self soother going to sleep.  “What if someone comes in the house while we’re sleeping and kills all of us? What if I die a painful death? What if I knock over a candle and burn the house down and you don’t want me in the family anymore?”  So sad that she has these thoughts.  This time, I asked her to write them down and then rewrite new, more positive thoughts so she could do it on her own.

She wrote, “If someone comes in our house and tries to kill us, my mom and dad will protect us and call the police. I will die a peaceful death. And if I knock over the candle and burn down the house, I will still be loved and allowed to be part of the family.”  Progress.

Just like every other skill we want to improve on, the best way to alter our thoughts and help our children to do the same is to practice.  It took practice to create the negative habit and will take practice to create the positive ones.

If your child is afraid of the dark, try sitting with them in the dark, hold their hand and talk about their fears.  Help them combat their own thoughts and redirect them to ones that make them feel better.  Ask what is the worst thing that can happen and play it out. I like to use humor as often as possible to make light of what is generally untrue.

If your child is afraid to talk to other adults or children they don’t know, create situations where they will be exposed to new people and role model the conversations for them to show and feel what its like to engage in new relationships. Self advocacy and communication are life long skills that if practiced early will take your child anywhere they want to go.

If your child is a perfectionist or has unreasonably high expectations for themselves, help them understand that perfection does not exist and if they were perfect, no one would to hang out with them anyway.  Have them set goals for themselves that are high enough to keep them motivated, but low enough to be achievable.  Perfectionism is stressful! Especially when it’s impossible to keep up with.

I could probably give 10,000 examples of the different anxieties I have seen in my child, worked with in adolescents and experienced myself.  The common denominator remains the same, its all what we say to ourselves.  Our thoughts create a physiological reaction that either lifts us up, makes us nervous or jittery, or drains the energy right out of us.  Over time, the thought process feels completely natural if that’s how you’ve learned to think.  When we identify it in our children, it is so important to acknowledge how they are thinking and help them retrain what they are saying to themselves.  If they start to avoid things, it may be even better to get them help with a professional to teach them skills you may be unaware of.  Anxiety is normal, we all experience it. But when it starts to control your life, its time to work a little harder to find ways to manage.

I always tell my children and the adolescents I work with that you can tell the difference between a negative thought about yourself and a positive one by the way they make you feel.  A negative thought feels awful because it’s a lie and a positive one feels great, because it’s true.  The more you lie to yourself, the worse you feel.  The more you are honest with yourself, the better you feel.

And just for the record, changing the way we think is not an easy task, but neither is staying stagnant and uncomfortable.  At the end of the day, you and your child, have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What works for you?

If you have any situations that you could use another perspective on, please feel free to Ask My Perspective.  There are always options and different ways to view a situation and I’m happy to share my experience with you.

  • Shannon Milholland

    Great tips for dealing with anxious children. Thankfully so far all four of mine are very laid back but you never know when you’ll need this info!

  • Kirsten

    This was very helpful. I have suffered from Germ-a-phobia for as long as I can remember and wish it would go away. When I see my children suffer from anxiety, I worry that it will become out of control like mine sometimes is. I love your suggestions. I am going to try the sitting in the dark with my 4 year old that has recently become very afraid to even go in another room by himself. Great post.

  • Romina Garcia (@Martyrhood)

    What a great post. My daughter suffered from anxiety earlier this year and we actually ended up taking her to sand therapy where we worked through her anxiety together. I think it’s important that we address the issue while they are young.

  • Karen Dawkins

    When my son struggled with learning to read and spell, his “esteem” plummeted. In seventh grade last year, his sister — IN KINDERGARTEN — could spell better than he did. We weren’t sure how he’d react to her prowess. In the past, he fell apart when he couldn’t keep up. He smiled at her and said he’s very happy she doesn’t have to work as hard as he does to spell, and then asked her if she knows the answer to some math problem he made up right there.

    That night when we tucked him in, my DH and I told him how proud we were (still are) for accepting his sister’s special talent and not getting angry AND for accepting who God made him to be.

    Our years of tears and anxiety seem to be behind us. My son is comfortable being him. Thank you, God, for answered prayers!

  • TyKes Mom

    I have personally struggled with anxiety all of my life. It can be a daily battle for both children and adults, especially in this world of public lifestyles through social sites. I love the quote by James Hollis (Jungian analyst):

    “The daily confrontation with these gremlins of fear and lethargy obliges us to choose between anxiety and depression, for each is aroused by the dilemma of daily choice…Faced with such a choice, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive. Anxiety is an elixir, and depression a sedative. The former keeps us on the edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.”

    Not to say that anxiety is a good thing, but this quote helps me remember to use it to be proactive and productive in order to combat it.

  • Rosann

    This is great information. A long time ago I suffered from a severe anxiety attack that landed me in the ER with all kinds of equipment hooked up to me in an effort to slow my heart rate, lower my blood pressure, and calm me down. My husband had been diagnosed with a life threatening heart condition when he was only 37 yrs old and after watching him spend 2 weeks in ICU, it became very real to me that no matter how young I am, I’m not invincible. My health can go at any time.

    It was very difficult for me to come to grips with it and for weeks after he got out of the hospital I swore I was having a heart attack. After my ER visit and a follow up with a cardiologist to confirm that my heart was completely normal and healthy, my husband opened up the Bible and pointed me to Psalm 91. The cardiologist had suggested I find a source of spiritual comfort and my husband led me right to it. It was shortly after that major event that I really developed a deep relationship with and trust in God. I haven’t had an anxiety attack since then. I know the signs my body shows when one is coming on and I know mentally how to control it and prevent it from going full blown.

    My daughter (at six yrs old) is showing signs of being a little mini perfectionist. It brings her a great deal of frustration and I’ve struggled to figure out how to help her work through those thoughts and feelings. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I happen to be a perfectionist too. So how do I teach her something I myself struggle to deal with? Your ideas for turning those thoughts around into something more positive is wonderful. I’m going to try it with her and see how she responds. I might even try it for myself! :-)

    ~Blessings to you,

  • Elisa

    So helpful. I think this would help with adults too. My husband has really struggled with anxiety, especially after our son died. I want him to read this post ;)

  • Kathy

    What a wonderful post! I was a what if child, and I have a what if child. The difference is I had the benefit of years of therapy and learned how to deal with it, so I can help my son. I do similar things with him that you do your “what if” sweetheart! I have seen such growth in him. The other day he was stressed about something about school, I was about to give him the alternative thought and he turned to me and said, Well, if that happens I can just do this. I was so impressed, since it took me years to do that! Thanks for the great information!! I love visiting your site!!

  • katya kate

    This is a great post! I can see anxiety often in my child. However, I and my hubby tried our best to convince her there’s nothing to worry about, just have fun and not to stress herself. Oftentimes I felt guilty about this, I know I influenced her. I’m a worrier myself. I worry about everything. My hubby always reminded to change the way I think and now reading your article affirmed it all. Thanks for sharing! I’ll try try to change myself too!

  • The Pepperrific Life

    If I got paid a nickel for everytime I was anxious, I’d probably be filthy rich by now! Your article is like a breath of fresh air.

    I think my daughter may have got that anxiety from me. Yes, she always asks, “What if”… That’s a good idea, to write her fears down. That should work for me as well.

    Thanks very much for posting this! Have a merry Christmas!

  • My Baby Sleep Guide

    I’m stopping by from the hop and am a new follower. Your blog is really great! I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. Would love it if you’d visit my Facebook page

    or blog


  • momto8blog

    You are not allowed to say “what if” in our house. we laid those ground rules early..I never heard those 2 words said.

  • Pingback: Little Miss Perfect

  • Pingback: Q&A My Perspective: Parenting the Anxious Child

  • Pingback: Do You Have An Anxious Child? Here's How To Turn Worries Into Smiles

  • Pingback: Overscheduling Our Children: How do you know when Enough is Enough?

  • Vanessa

    Thank you for this! I have always been an anxious person and I am learning to combat it now, as an adult, but I see the same tendencies in my 6 year old. I love the practical advice of saying positive what ifs.

Previous post:

Next post: