My nine-year-old child is an anxious person. I see the familiar perfectionist tendencies in his actions and thoughts. I'm reminded of myself. And it worries me.
My son has an utter hatred of failure. He likes to be in control. He worries about the little, inconsequential things in life that he can’t change.
At night, he can’t sleep because he’s so worried about the "big things", like the future and death.
Childhood is supposed to be a time for play, imagination and neverending possibility wrapped in magic. It’s not meant to be a time when you feel like you’re a failure and there’s nothing you can do about it.
My son is just a kid. Yet he has got so much going on in his young mind. I feel guilty as a mother because I’ve let him succumb to this debilitating anxiety. I want to help.
But I also need help myself, for my own anxiety. Developing a growth mindset can help us both.
What’s a growth mindset?
Growth mindset is an idea developed by Carol Dweck based on the concept of brain plasticity. It’s the idea that the brain is able to adapt and change as a direct result of a person’s life experiences. In order to define a growth mindset you have to understand that there are two types of mindsets:
A fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset
A fixed mindset is a belief that your mind is static. If you’re smart, you stay smart, but if you’re not so smart then… there’s nothing you can do about it.
A fixed mindset is seen in children when they:
…believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb (Wikipedia).
On the other hand, a growth mindset is a belief you can teach your brain to learn new things and become a more resilient and happier person because of it.
A growth mindset is seen when children:
…understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it (Wikipedia).
How can I help my anxious child to develop a growth mindset?
Having a growth mindset can help children to be persistent with their effort. But how can you encourage this development of a growth mindset in your own anxious child?
You can help your child to become a resilient, positive-thinking little human being with just a few simple shifts in the way they think about things.
Teach children about how their own brain works — and how it works best for them
The first step to developing a growth mindset is helping your child to understand how their own brain works. It’s exciting when children understand that learning rewires their brain and increases their intelligence.
When your child understands how they learn best, it makes it easier for them to learn new things. For example, based on Neil Fleming’s VARK learning styles, you can discover whether your child is a visual, aural, reading/writing or kinesthetic learner. Your child can then use the learning style (or multiple styles) that works best for them.
Praise effort, not the end result
When you have a difficult task ahead of you it’s easy to focus on how hard it is to achieve a good result.
When children are faced with a difficult task, it’s important for parents to praise the process. Praise the hard work that goes into achieving a goal. Not simply the test result at the end.
Because it’s the effort that got them there in the first place. And it’s the effort that will continue to push children to keep going. It’s the effort that will help them to learn that trying is important. Effort will help children to achieve their true potential.
Children who believe their success relies on talent or ability, or who are praised for their talent or ability alone, may not reach their true potential. They have a fixed mindset.
But children who have a growth mindset realise that everyone is different and everyone learns differently. They know how they learn best and use those learning styles to achieve their goals.
It’s the learning that matters. It's how much effort you put into learning that will help you to achieve your goals.
Failure is a learning experience
Along with focusing on effort rather than simply the end result, it’s important for children to realise that failure doesn’t have to mean The End. Failure is probably going to happen, but it’s an excellent way to learn.
It’s also an excellent way for children to build resilience. And children who are resilient are able to push through those hard times when it feels like everything is against them.
Embrace criticism and learn from it
Sometimes it’s hard to handle the truth. Especially for anxious children. That’s why it’s important for parents to praise the process of learning rather than simply the result.
It’s also important to teach anxious children how to cope with criticism. A child with a fixed mindset may ignore all criticism, even useful criticism.
Or they may use criticism to fuel the idea that failure is the worst possible thing in the world. That not only have they failed but they are a failure and there’s nothing they can do about it.
These thoughts aren’t productive. They fuel a fixed mindset. That’s why it’s important to encourage an anxious child to develop a growth mindset to learn from criticism.
A child with a growth mindset will interpret criticism in a way that helps them move forward. They’ll try new strategies and ideas to work around their failure and keep trying.
The one thing you’ve gotta do is that you need to always do the best you can do, no matter what the given situation, no matter what comes up against you. You do the best you can do, and you never give up. Never quit.
– James Corden
We know our children are our future. We need them to grow into their best selves. Into their confident, resilient, hard-working selves. With a growth mindset, your child can learn how to cope with failure and understand the importance of having a go, trying their best and never giving up.
While a growth mindset isn’t going to change everything overnight, it’s a great starting point to open a line of communication with your anxious child. It can help your child to know there’s a way forward. To know they’re special and important and brilliant little people and that we love them.
And hopefully, that will help them feel confident to succeed, even if it means failing. Because as a parent, you must keep trying.