While some anxiety in childhood is common, research has shown a large increase in anxiety in children today. In fact, ten percent of children display excessive fears and anxieties that usually lead to an anxiety disorder later in life. What’s a parent to do when their children display anxious behaviors? The following are some guidelines to help you parent your anxious child and help them learn better ways of thinking and coping.
- assist your child in identifying all-or-nothing thinking errors
- prepare your child for transitions
- form a partnership with your child’s teacher
- help your children scale their anxiety
- support and nurture your children when they make mistakes
- dismiss your child’s anxiety
- label your child’s anxiety as abnormal
- discipline your child for avoidant behaviors
- overschedule your child
- react out of fear to anxiety-provoking events in your own life
Anxiety causes children to think in black and white terms. For example, when seeing a dog in a park, a child may think, “That dog will bite me!” It is crucial for parents to help their children identify these types of all-or-nothing thinking errors and correct them in the moment. A simple response such as, “Actually, most dogs don’t bite kids,” will not only calm your child’s immediate anxiety, but also models a more appropriate way of thinking about anxiety-provoking stimuli.
Children with anxiety typically believe the world is a fearful and unpredictable place. Therefore, they take great effort to control their surroundings. Try to make transitions as predictable as possible for your children by giving them time-specific and visual cues. This will help them learn to regulate themselves and prepare for the change. Even preparing them for the simplest transitions can help. For example, “We are going to leave in 30 minutes. When the clock says ‘6:15,’ you will have 15 more minutes to play before you need to get ready.”
Children spend almost as much time at school as they do at home. Therefore, it is not only important that you have a good understanding of your child’s thinking patterns and triggers, but also your child’s teacher. Keep the teacher informed of the strategies you are using at home to help your child cope. Share what has been effective and what triggers your child. Make things as consistent as possible between school life and home life. Balancing two very different worlds with two very different sets of expectations can cause a sharp increase in your child’s anxiety.
It is good for children to learn the difference between levels of anxiety and how each level feels. Sit with your child and make an anxiety scale. For example, a number 5 can include things that make your child panic. A number 3 can include things that create a moderate amount of anxiety. And a number 1 can include things that illicit minimum anxiety. When you notice your child reacting anxiously, ask him/her to scale the anxiety. Then brainstorm ideas together as to how to get their anxiety down to a lower number. Complete alleviation of the anxiety is not the goal. Rather, it is teaching children how to regulate themselves to a lower level of anxiety in the moment.
Fear of failure undergirds most children’s anxiety. Therefore, it is imperative that when mistakes do happen–and they inevitably will–you extend acceptance and grace to your child. Show them that making mistakes does not mean they are unloved or invaluable. Find the positive in the failure and celebrate that. For example, “I know you were hoping to get straight A’s, but you have had a stressful few months. I think getting a C is incredible for the stress you have been under. Let’s go get ice cream to celebrate how great you have handled your stress this semester.”
Thinking that anxiety is normal and should be dealt with can drive a wedge between you and your child. Although anxiety is normal and kids must learn to cope, dismissing your child’s fears is a missed opportunity to bond with your child. Collaborate with your child to help him or her find effective strategies. Share your experiences with anxiety. Create a relationship with your child where he or she can open up to you. Be a safe person that your child can come to for help and guidance.
Labels rarely do any good. By labeling your child’s fears as abnormal, you are perpetuating the cycle of anxiety that your child is already stuck in. Fear and worries are normal parts of life. Most children’s fears are very normal, but they may have just become a bit extreme. Find the normal part of your child’s anxiety and empathize with it. Extend understanding and help your child find solutions.
Anxiety makes us avoid things that increase our fear. For example, if a child has a fear of failing a class, he or she will most likely avoid doing homework. Completing homework might serve as a reminder of how little they understand the material, which in turn, produces more anxiety about failing. So it actually feels better to avoid homework so those anxious feelings don’t surface.
Don’t punish your children when you see these avoidant behaviors surface. Rather, understand the fear your children must be under and collaborate with them to complete the task. For example, “I understand doing your homework makes you anxious because you are afraid of not doing well in this class. However, I am going to help you with it. I love you no matter what. Let’s figure this assignment out together.”
Understand your child’s threshold of stress tolerance. A child with anxiety will most likely be unable to handle a full load of classes and several extracurricular activities. Make sure your children have downtime in their week to connect with family and friends. Childhood should be a carefree time. However, if your child is overscheduled, it will most likely produce more intense fear and anxiety throughout their week.
Research has shown that modeling is the most effective parenting strategy we have. If you don’t want your children to curse, then you as the parent should not curse. Children learn what they see. The same goes for handling emotions. If you handle anxiety ineffectively, you should seek out help to learn how to manage it better. Modeling healthy ways of coping is the most effective thing you can do to parent your anxious child.
Remember that anxiety is a normal part of life, but some children struggle with it more than others. Collaborate with your children to find effective strategies to decrease their anxiety, such as an anxiety scale or correcting black-and-white thinking. Help your children prepare for transitions and collaborate with their teacher to make things as consistent as possible between home and school. Remember to extend empathy toward your children when you see them feeling anxious. Learn ways to appropriately manage your own anxiety, so you can model healthy emotional regulation to your child. Above all, take a deep breath and understand that you and your child will get through this together. And hopefully, you will both be better emotionally-regulated people on the other side.