Do you have an anxious little one at home? We hear from Dr Vanessa von Auer, Clinical Psychologist of VA Psychology Center, and Ms Valerie Colond, Principal of Winchester Infant House and Playclub, on words to avoid saying to your child and what to say instead to reduce his anxiety.


1. “Hurry up!”

The last thing an anxious child needs is your impatience.

Say This Instead: “We’ll go at… (child’s name e.g. Michael’s) pace today!”

Try living an unhurried life and see how it benefits your anxious child. Sometimes, you just have to stop by the roadside with your little ones to watch a family of snails cross the footpath.

2. “Say sorry.”

teach children to say sorry

Research by child development theorist Erik Erikson shows that children between 18 months to 3 years of age need to build autonomy vs. shame and doubt. By forcing your child to say “sorry” when he is not ready, you may increase his feelings of shame and doubt which will inevitably add to his feelings of anxiety.

Say This Instead: “Your behaviour is not appropriate because… (it will hurt others/things)”

Take a leaf from Maria Montessori. Montessori’s goal was for her students to do the right thing not because of the fear of punishment, but because they do not want to adversely affect the people and world around them.

3. “Why don’t you ever greet?”

Meeting people can be overwhelming for shy and introverted children.

Say This Instead: “How about a Hi-5?”

Provide your shy child with simple and interesting alternatives to greeting such as a hi-5 or fist bump. Do not force them to perform social etiquettes such as making eye contact, smiling, shaking hands and/or greeting verbally at the first instance of meeting a new person.

4. “There is nothing to be scared of.”

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Dr von Auer cautions parents never to belittle or dismiss your child’s fears as this can increase his worries further.

Say This Instead: “Tell me what you are afraid of.”

Dr von Auer encourages parents to reassure their children calmly and with confidence so that they feel safe and secure. She adds that with such an approach, the child struggling with anxiety will gradually trust in his parents’ advice and his own ability to try new things.

5. “You will be fine.”

You-statements usually convey a lack of empathy.

Say This Instead: “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Dr von Auer urges parents to always take on a supportive and calming role. “Phrases or questions like these not only acknowledge the child’s worries and concerns but also help them problem-solve and ask for help. Such problem-solving helps the anxious child gain a sense of control in their anxious world which often feels uncontrollable,” says Dr von Auer.

6. “Why did you do this AGAIN?”

Your child may feel condemned by your tone of exasperation. Saying this also tells them that you keep record of their past mistakes.

Say This Instead: “Let’s put this behind us and start afresh.”

It is important to be patient and polite when correcting children. Kind words can strengthen your relationship with your child and help children take ownership of their mistakes.

7. “Good Job!”

right way to praise kids

This frequently-used praise on children is too generic and task-oriented.

Say This Instead: “I like how you show… (values e.g. generosity)/when you… (effort e.g. shared your goodie bag with your sister).”

Be specific with your praises and focus on your child’s effort or values displayed. 

8. “Stop it, or the Police will get you!”

You anxious child may become unduly fearful of authority figures. Dr von Auer opines that threats can exacerbate a child’s worries.

Say This Instead: “You have a choice. You can… (good behaviour e.g. play nicely with siblings) and we will… (positive consequence e.g. stay at the playground). If you can’t manage, we are… (negative consequences e.g. going home).”

Be prepared to do just that if the bad behaviour persists. This teaches your kids realistic and logical consequences of their actions/choices. When you mean what you say, it lends credibility to you as a parent, which is very reassuring for your child.

9. “Why can’t you be like… (sibling/peer)?”

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Ms Colond believes that even when done in a positive light, parents fall into the trap of using peer pressure to steer children’s behaviours and fail to acknowledge the problem itself. When constantly being compared, children feel insecure about their own abilities.

Say This Instead: “Wow! You are… (talent or positive behaviour e.g. such a good sport)!”

Ms Colond reminds parents to always be proud of their children and never put them down, especially in public. Instead of complaining about their children’s bad behaviours or weaknesses, parents need to spend more time enjoying each child’s uniqueness and strengths.

10. “Your… (significant person in child’s life e.g. Aunt Julie) is so… (negative trait e.g. competitive).”

You model badmouthing. It poisons your child’s relationship with those significant others.

Say This Instead: “Aunt Julie is such a motivated person.”

Do not mistake this for hypocrisy. Instead, use reframing or look for other positive traits and highlight them. You are supporting your child as he learns to build new and expanding social relationships with flexibility and emotional comfort.

11. “Don’t ask me. Ask your Daddy.”

Kid hug daddy

Your child may pick up on marital strife and tension when you make him a conduit for communication between you and your spouse. It does not help in building his emotional security.

Say This Instead: “Let’s discuss this with Daddy.”

This demonstrates open communication and a united parenting front.

Many times your anxious child may cope with his anxiety and worries by being perfectionistic, defiant and/or temperamental; but don’t worry, your kind disposition and encouraging words will always be the most powerful form of reassurance for them.

By Rachel Lim.

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