“Mom, I feel sick,” my 10-year-old daughter says, as she clutches her tummy on the sidelines before a big soccer game. She is sick, but she is not ill. Her tummy is churning with nervous energy; worry and anticipation are gnawing at her mind. Her pre-performance anxiety is gradually twisting the fun and excitement of game time into an angsty and stressful ordeal. The truth is, she is thrilled and energized after the game. She loves to play hard and be part of a team, but the anxiety is taking a toll on her ability to enjoy the process.
As a mom, I feel this is a great opportunity to talk to her about some important life skills and patterns of thinking that could support her emotional health long term. Learning to deal with her worries and anxieties now, while the stakes are relatively low, is about a lot more than just soccer. This is an opportunity for her to intentionally create thought pathways in her brain that she will tread into well-worn ruts over time. This is an opportunity to introduce ideas that will become her inner voice.
Here are a few of the strategies we have been trying:
Focus on the Story.The first thing I ask her is, “What story are you telling yourself about this situation?” Predictably, she says she is telling herself that she is scared, nervous, and sick with worry and fear, and that she hates the pressure of competing. I then ask her, “Is there another way you could tell this story?” She needs a little help, so we brainstorm together and she acknowledges that she’s excited to be here, in the sunshine, with her family and teammates, getting ready to run her heart out and play a sport she loves. Both stories are true, but the fearful one is much larger and louder in her brain. I encourage her to put the positive version of her story on repeat in her mind.
Take Deep Breaths.She has heard a lot about deep breathing at school—and she kind of rolls her eyes when I ask if she’s taken some deep breaths—but there is no denying the mental benefits. So, in the stressful moments before a game, I remind her to take a deep breath in and right before she breathes out, to notice the stillness she feels inside. I tell her that this space is always there and she can access it whenever she wants. We then take a few more deep, restorative breaths together, and it is empowering for her to realize that this calm space is always within her reach.
Normalize Mistakes.The fear of failure may be at the core of her performance anxiety. She is an advanced student, a kind friend, and an adored daughter. She is used to succeeding and pleasing. What if she fails this time? What if she makes a mistake?
One of the most empowering tools I have discovered to combat her budding perfectionism is to use the word ‘mistakes’ often in our daily interactions. When I forget to buy an ingredient for dinner I say, “Oh, shoot, I made a mistake. That sure is a bummer, but we all make mistakes. Maybe I can substitute another ingredient!” The more diligent I am in modeling this pattern, the more resilience I see in my daughter.
I have found that in those sideline moments, if I whisper a reminder to her that, “Hey, everyone makes mistakes, just go out there and play your best and have fun” her shoulders relax. Simply reminding her that failure is part of life and not the end of the world, takes some of the bravado out of her anxiety.
I love watching my daughter internalize these patterns of thinking. The other day, she came home from school and told me her teacher was asking the class how they dealt with hard situations in life. My daughter raised her hand and said, “I like to think about the story I am telling myself.” She explained more about this process and then her teacher had the whole class practice telling themselves a different version of their hard-situation story. I knew then, that she was generalizing these lessons from the soccer field to other areas of her life. It was becoming her way of thinking.
QUESTION: What ideas have you used to help your kids deal with nervousness and anxiety? What do you wish you had been taught as a kid about how to deal with these emotions?
CHALLENGE: Make a point this week to talk about the mistakes you make. Make sure your family knows that mistakes are a normal part of life. Have a family lesson about the strategies in this article.
Edited by Kimberly Price.
Image provided by the author.