How a growth mindset can help anxious children

Recently I have seen quite a few children presenting with anxiety that I would describe as having perfectionistic characteristics. They had a great deal of difficulty trying new things, such as a new sport or activity, or they avoid completing tasks at school for fear that they might not do well. When the child's parents came to see me, they often described their child as refusing to try new things such as riding a bike without training wheels, or despite being really excited about going to dance class, once they got there, the child completely clammed up and refused to participate. One parent told me that their child wouldn't put their hand up in class, even if they knew the answer, and if asked directly by the teacher her child mumbled "I don't know" instead of giving an answer. Does this sound familiar to you and your child?

Lately, I have been reading about Growth Mindset and how that can be of benefit to children in an academic sense. The researcher, Carol Dweck, found that there were two mindsets - fixed and growth mindsets. A child with a fixed mindset believes that they are either good or bad at something, and nothing will change that. In contrast, a child with a growth mindset believes that they can improve on a skill through practice. In relation to the children I mentioned above, who were refusing to try new tasks, they believed that if they tried something they would fail. Dr Dweck suggested that children with a fixed mindset often had a focus on performance (the outcome), and as a result they tended to:

  • avoid challenges and choose to do easier tasks that they feel confident they can succeed in;

  • give up easily when they find a task challenging;

  • ignore constructive criticism;

  • and feel threatened by the success of others (often seen as comparing themselves to someone who was already able to perform the task successfully)

In contrast, a child with a Growth Mindset, is able to embrace challenges, learn from feedback, and persist when things are tough. All the important strategies for learning a new skill. In her research, Dr Dweck demonstrated that children who were taught about Growth Mindset improved their academic scores through effort and motivation in comparison to children who did not receive the training.

So, back to my parents and the children who were having trouble trying new things. The parents often said the same things - they knew if their child just tried, they would like it. For example, riding a bike or playing t-ball. It can be the most frustrating experience, knowing that your child will enjoy something if they just gave it a go. In our sessions, we focused on combining Growth Mindset and focusing on effort rather than achievement, with descriptive praise - describing the exact behaviour that we liked that our child performed.

For example, rather than saying "wow, awesome, you rode your bike, that's amazing!" - which is what we are all prone to do, because we want to tell our children they are brave for trying something new and boost their self-esteem - we would say "I like the way you kept on trying, even though you fell off. It was really good that you got back on your bike and tried again". In the second instance we are reinforcing the behaviour we want to instill in our children - perseverance - and encouraging a growth mindset by learning from their mistakes and learning that they can improve through effort. This is particularly importance for a child who is focused on outcomes or has perfectionistic tendencies, because if we just say "wow that was awesome", they will counter with "but I fell off". It's a lot harder to debate "I like the way you kept trying".

The second part we focused on was introducing the concept of the "The Learning Pit", which was developed by James Nottingham. This is a really good way of making a visual representation for your child of the process of learning something new, in which we all fall into the "pit" and have to work to get out of it. It helps to normalise the difficulty in learning a new skill, and that it is ok to ask for help. Again, it reinforces the focus on effort rather than outcome. By persevering, you will eventually learn how to do it.

Finally, what I encouraged these parents to understand was that encouraging a Growth Mindset will be an ongoing intervention. It will help their child to learn to cope with disappointment and develop resilience, all important factors as they grow older and progress through school. It can also help our children to manage anxiety, because they learn they can have control over the effort they put into learning something new, that it is not scary or dangerous, and that everyone goes through the same process when learning something new.

If you would like more information on Growth Mindset and anxiety in children, please do not hesitate to get in contact with me at Grove Psychology.

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