When you have a child struggling with anxiety, it’s natural to want to
rescue him from anxious situations. But according to author Cheryl Swope, constantly
rescuing your child can do more harm than good. Find out why on today’s
Mike Smith: My guest today is Cheryl Swope. She’s the
author of the homeschool curriculum Simply Classical, and she has
successfully homeschooled her two children, who both have learning disabilities.
Cheryl, thank you for being with us and welcome to the program!
Cheryl Swope: Thank you, it’s good to be with you.
What causes anxiety? [0:32]
Mike: Cheryl, your curriculum focuses on helping children
with special needs and learning disabilities. Now, anxiety is one struggle that many
children face, but it isn’t talked about very much. So in your experience, what
are the most common causes of anxiety in children?
Cheryl: The most common causes are both external and
internal. External causes of anxiety include real dangers they might face; being
overexposed to stressful situations or violence, say, in media; or even hearing the
news too often. Internal causes include a familial predisposition to being a very
sensitive person, neurological or sensory challenges, or faulty thinking patterns
that the child has developed. The good news is that as parents we can lessen the
effects of all of these.
Mike: Now Cheryl, what are the best ways for parents to tell
if their child is struggling with anxiety or not?
Cheryl: The first way is to listen. If you child often
begins sentences with “I’m worried about” or “I’m
afraid that,” this may indicate anxious thought patterns. Second, observe. Does
your child engage in nail-biting, excessive crying, trying to avoid situations that
other children would find enjoyable? Does he have an overly inward focus? We
intentionally include good children’s literature throughout our Simply
Classical curriculum from Memoria Press, because literature has been shown to
nurture a healthy empathy for others and an outward focus.
Anxious thoughts vs. clear thinking [2:03]
Mike: Cheryl, how can parents encourage a child struggling
Cheryl: The key is to help him notice when his overly
anxious thoughts are unwarranted, so he can replace those thoughts with clear-calm
thinking. It’s a cognitive approach. I recently wrote an article entitled
“Hope for the Worried
Child.” It’s free to read at CherylSwope.com. In the article, you can find a link
to a great book that outlines this cognitive approach step-by-step. My husband and I
have successfully used this approach with both of our adopted twins—a boy and a
girl. They both suffer from severe mental illness, specifically schizophrenia, so we
needed something powerful and effective.
Mike: Cheryl, what practical steps can parents take to help
their child gain confidence—without overwhelming them?
Cheryl: Well first, be sure to break things down, whether
academic or social, into small, successful bites. You want to reverse any patterns of
failure and turn the child towards real achievement. This is confidence-boosting in
Second, assure him that many people feel anxious or nervous—it is what we do
with those feelings that’s important. We can bravely face our nervous or
anxious feelings. We can move forward with confidence, knowing that we will not be
given anything we cannot handle.
Raising confident children [3:23]
Mike: Cheryl, how old were the children when you adopted
Cheryl: They were just 1. They came to us as 1.
Mike: Okay, so you actually got an early start. That’s
Cheryl: Yeah, it was very good.
Mike: How old are they now?
Cheryl: They are almost 22.
Mike: Wow, how are they doing?
Cheryl: They are doing fabulously, really, all things
Mike: Do they live at home?
Cheryl: They do live with us, yeah. And their lives are
lives lived in service. That’s a theme that we started really early and that
has helped them overcome so much, is looking at their lives that way: that no matter
how challenged they are, they can serve other people.
Mike: What are some examples of the kind of service they
Cheryl: Well, my daughter works every Tuesday in a nursing
Cheryl: Just yesterday she was helping her favorite
resident, who has dementia. They just, they have this connection, the two of them.
And I think partly it’s because they think similarly. But she was helping her
play bingo. Neither one of them won, but they just had the best time. And
that’s her favorite thing to do, is to play bingo with this lady. I can’t
say her name, but they have this special connection. So she serves every Tuesday as
an activity aide with our local nursing home.
And my son helps some widows on our street with yard work. He’s very
big—he’s 6’2”. So he can help with raking and shoveling the
driveway, and they’ll try to insist on paying, and he’ll say, “No,
I just love to do it.”
And so they find little ways like that around the house. Plus, they both help a
ton as we get older—my husband and I—they help quite a bit around the
house. Michelle is my Domestic Assistant—capital D and capital A.
Mike: Good, good. So are they going to be able to be
self-sufficient at some point?
Cheryl: No. No, their biological mother had schizophrenia,
and we don’t know about the biological father. So I think their load,
genetically, was pretty high. They both do really, really well with support, but if
we pulled that support out from under them, then things would unravel.
Mike: I got it. So you’re their guardian, I presume,
Cheryl: We are. Right. We received guardianship right before
[they turned] 18, and so we’re guardian and conservator, and that has worked
really well for them and us.
Mike: Okay. Well you guys, I admire you for taking on
what you’ve taken on. That’s amazing.
Cheryl: Well, we had no idea. When they came to us, they
were just cute little bugs.
Mike: Well, God bless you. That’s great, God bless
(Don’t) W-O-R-R-Y [5:55]
Mike: Cheryl, what are the biggest pitfalls that parents can fall
into when trying to help their child deal with anxiety?
Cheryl: The five big pitfalls can be remembered with an
The W is for wringing our own hands. If we worry about our children’s
worrying, we do no one any favors.
The O is for overreacting. Similar to W, if we overreact out loud to our child,
that will not solve the problem.
The first R is for rescuing. It’s very tempting to rescue our anxious
children, anticipating every need so they never need to feel anxious, or so we think.
Rescuing can unwittingly cause the child to feel even less capable and more
The second R is running to every specialist under the sun. We don’t want to
do that. Just find one or two good professionals and let them help you if you need
And the Y is for yelling. Of course, this only creates more tension for the child.
Model your own calm.
When we focus too much on the child’s worries, we forget the child’s
gifts and talents. It’s through those gifts and talents that the child can
learn to still his fears and to love and serve others. Love conquers fear, and
that’s what we really want for our children.
Mike: Cheryl, did you come up with that acrostic?
Cheryl: Yes, sir.
Mike: That is fantastic. Wow!
Cheryl: Just for this interview.
Model your own calm [7:17]
Mike: Cheryl, children who struggle with anxiety can be very
sensitive, and it can be hard to communicate with them in a healthy and constructive
manner. Now what advice do you have for parents when they talk to their children
about his or her anxiety?
Cheryl: Yes, not only do we need to take steps to change the
way we talk to our children; we also need to help them learn to change the way they
talk to themselves. So instead of, “This is impossible! I can’t do
this,” we teach them to say, “This looks difficult, but I’m going
Here’s a new acrostic: C-A-L-M.
The C is for coach. We come alongside our children as a coach who teaches new ways
of thinking and provides lots of practice.
A is for assess. Find out if the child is overestimating the bad things that will
befall him—whether [it’s] embarrassment, ridicule, or physical danger,
assess what she fears.
And then L, lead. Lead her to think more clearly with facts and evidence. What is
the actual likelihood of something catastrophic happening here? What is the
possibility of something tolerable or even favorable happening?
And finally, M for model. Give examples out loud, such as: “I feel a little
nervous about visiting Grandma at the nursing home today, but I’m going to go
because she needs us. Her needs are more important than my worry.”
So coach, assess, lead, and model. C-A-L-M. Model your own calm.
Balancing your standards [8:44]
Mike: Cheryl, sometimes the expectations we parents set for
our children can contribute to their anxiety or worry. If we set our standards too
high, our children might become afraid of failure. How can parents of a child
struggling with anxiety keep their standards realistic without losing them
Cheryl: Yes, we need to be careful not to create a demanding
or overly critical relationship with our children. Perfection cannot be our
standards. Neither do we want to coddle, excuse, or give up on them completely. So a
good way to safeguard is to step back with a spouse or a good friend or a fellow
homeschooler, check to see that your expectations are clear and fair and that
consequences are equally clear and fair. Anxiety will lessen for everyone when your
child knows he is in good hands.
Mike: That’s great. Now Cheryl, what are the most
important things for parents to remember as they help their child cope with anxiety
Cheryl: The most important things to remember are to help
the child think more clearly about himself and his place in the world. Be sure he
eats well and gets plenty of daily exercise, as this has been shown to relieve
anxiety. And be sure that you notice and nurture his own gifts. If you need a gentle,
nurturing curriculum to help you do this, we invite you to consider the Simply
Classical curriculum at Memoria Press. Above all else, we can remind our
children and ourselves that in the world we will have trouble; but we can take heart,
for we have the one who has overcome the world for us.
Mike: Cheryl, that’s fantastic advice and great
encouragement. Thank you so much for joining us this week. I know our listeners have
appreciated your guidance and insights for helping them handle a child that has
anxiety. Until next time, I’m Mike Smith.