‘Listen to your children. Label, identify and validate what they are feeling.’

South Hampstead Alumna and Chair of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development Professor Abi Gewirtz kicked off the first GDST Talks event of 2021, advising parents on how to reassure their youngsters when the world feels like a scary place.

GDST Talks welcomed SHHS alumna Professor Abi Gewirtz to speak to parents on how to support their children through unpredictable times. Professor Gewirtz’s book, When The World Feels Like A Scary Place, available now, models conversations which aim to encourage children to engage with and express how they are feeling. ‘Take 10, every day,’ says Professor Gewirtz. ‘Ten minutes at dinner time, in the car, walking the dog, to talk. Follow your child’s lead.’ 


Professor Gewirtz, who is also Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Psychology, told parents: ‘Thank you for being your children’s best teachers.’


Anxiety is a very normal part of a child’s development, she reassured parents, and can change in the way it manifests itself as the child gets older. Telling your child that everything will be fine, or that they are too young to worry about something, can convey the message to a child that their emotions are not valid. 


‘Conversations are not one-off events: take ten minutes a day to talk to your child with no distractions and let them set the agenda.’


Professor Gewirtz shared an approach to emotional coaching, whereby parents recognise and acknowledge a young person’s worry, and address it in stages. 

  • ‘Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others,’ advises Professor Gewirtz. ‘Perhaps create some space between the expression of worry  and the subsequent conversation, to prepare and calm your own emotional reaction, by sitting your child down, making a drink and getting comfortable.’
  • Sometimes, it’s best to leave some silence and wait for your child to speak. In doing this, we can find that what they think they are worried about is not actually what they are worried about.
  • End your conversation with some scaffolding to help children solve the problems. Brainstorm ideas, with your child’s input: it’s your job to listen but not always to tell children what to do next.
  • Set limits: avoidance of the problem – for example, not going to school – can’t be an option.
  • Reassure your child by providing consistency during a time of change. ‘Our job as parents is to keep the walls of our home as solid as they can be,’ she explains.’ Which means that routine is essential.’


‘Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others: only in understanding our own reactions to stress can we help our children.’


Professor Gewirtz compared the parent-child relationship to a dance, which parents and children have to learn together, with both parties stepping on each others’ toes while they work out how the other one moves. ‘Children learn how to deal with their own emotions by watching their parents deal with their emotions,’ she explains. ‘Show your child you are not perfect. And you need to be able to forgive yourself when you feel you have got it wrong.’

When The World Feels Like A Scary Place by Professor Abi Gewirtz is available now. 

Dr Abi Gewirtz’s full presentation: