Our kids regularly face situations that provoke strong emotion: the first day of school, playing in a big game, giving an oral report, attending the prom. At those times, it’s not uncommon for them to feel unsettled and ill at ease. They might say they’re feeling anxious. We’ve been there; we know what they’re talking about.
Anticipating “big” moments, the body becomes physiologically aroused — shortness of breath, faster heart rate, moist palms — reflecting so much emotion. In this Age of Anxiety, we might hear them say “I’m anxious” or “I’m nervous.” But before we embrace the label of anxiety at those times, there may be a better way for us to respond, since the way we talk about our feelings can make a big difference. Consider labeling their emotion “excitement.” Excitement shares with anxiety many of the same signposts of high physiological arousal, but as a frame of reference, it offers considerable advantages.
It’s well known that anxiety can decrease self-confidence and get in the way of performance. Children focused on anxiety tend to worry about whether they’ll do well. By contrast, labeling heightened arousal as excitement invites positive — not negative — associations, freed from implications of pathology (“I have a problem”) and linked instead to something normal and natural. One study found that reappraising anxiety as excitement led to both increased excitement as well as improved outcomes on a variety of tasks.1 Youngsters understand that excitement is a good thing, a sign that something special is about to take place.
So when our children come to us at certain challenging moments, describing feelings of nervousness or anxiety, we can listen to them patiently, determine for ourselves if there’s any real problem that needs addressing, and offer them a better lens through which to understand what they’re feeling. “Sounds like you’re excited. Of course you are! Anyone would be excited at a time like this.” It’s a lens that can shift their viewpoint from what’s wrong to what’s right, allowing them to embrace positive expectations of opportunity and success.
- Brooks, A. W., Get Excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2014. Volume 143 Number 3. 1144-1158.