Are you wondering about how to help your anxious child? Are you unsure about what to do when your child comes to you with fear and nervousness? Do you feel trapped in your child’s anxiety patterns? You are definitely not alone.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns among kids and teens. Since there are a lot of anxious kids, there are also a lot of parents trying to figure out how to help their kids. The following are some basic principles to follow when you are working with your child to conquer their anxiety.
It is really easy to get stuck in cycles of anxiety. As a parent, it will important for you to learn as much as you can about your child’s patterns. What are the situations that trigger their anxiety? What thoughts and worries do they have going through their head? How do they physically react and feel when they get anxious? What do they do or how do they behave when they are anxious? What is reinforcing their anxiety?
The more you know about your child’s patterns, the easier it will be to make important changes. If it is difficult for you to be an impartial observer, it might be helpful to work with a mental health professional on identifying your child’s patterns. Sometimes when we are really close to it, it is hard to see the patterns clearly.
You will also want to educate yourself about anxiety in general. There are many different types of anxiety and it often looks different in children, adolescents, and adults. Look online and ask a mental health professional for educational resources to help you understand anxiety in children.
When we are feeling a negative emotion like anxiety, we also really want to feel understood. By listening and truly validating your child’s experience, you are able to offer empathy and understanding. As adults, we know discomfort is a part of life. We know how challenging it can be. It’s important to remind our kids that it is okay to have emotions. They are going to be scared and uncomfortable at times. Simply acknowledging their emotion and normalizing it helps them tolerate these emotions rather than making them feel like these emotions are bad and need to be fixed immediately.
Most importantly, the physical sensations we feel when we are anxious are not dangerous. But these sensations can be very scary if we don’t understand them. You can educate your child about the way our bodies work when we are scared. If they recognize the fight-or-flight response is natural and purposeful, the sensations won’t seem as scary.
It is better to have children experience difficult situations and learn how to get through them than not experience anything difficult at all. So rather than the focus be on saving our children from all pain and suffering, we can focusing on increasing their resilience and ability to work through life’s inevitable struggles.
We also assume children already have coping skills, but they most likely don’t know how to cope yet. You have to teach them how to work through these difficult times. Maybe you will have to work on problem solving skills, breaking things down into steps, or creating a plan of action. Maybe you will have to work on soothing skills like finding relaxing activities, breathing, exercising, or doing something fun. Maybe they have to learn how to talk to themselves differently.
Whatever skills need to be put into place, your child needs to actually have the opportunity to practice them as well. So this means supporting them, not doing it for them. And most importantly, give encouragement, praise, and rewards when they practice a new skill and get through tough situations. Exude confidence in their abilities: “You are strong and you can do this.” You can also remind them of all of their previous successes, expressing pride in their bravery.
Anxiety usually comes with a lot of rules and requirements. Your child likely feels like things need to be a certain way otherwise something bad might happen and they will start to feel uncomfortable. Basically, they are trying to have control in order to feel okay. In order to break up this rigidness, your child will need to understand the benefits of flexibility. And start to embrace it.
It is important to have a good balance of structure and flexibility in your child’s daily life. Sometimes we have to purposefully create change and spontaneity in order for our kids to learn how to cope with it. For example, mix things up at home. Change seats at the dinner table, eat pancakes for dinner, drive a different route home from school, or go to a movie on a weekday. It can be anything. Your goal is to show your children you can change things, adapt, and nothing bad will happen.
For children who struggle with perfectionism, you will also want to model the concept of “good enough.” We have to show them that we aren’t perfect and we don’t expect them to be perfect either. Practice going out in public with stains on your shirts or with your hair a little messed up. Point out when you forget something or make a mistake. Show them that these things are not the end of the world. The more they see it, the more they will believe it.
Slow down. Take a breath. The advice you are giving to your child might be the advice you need to take yourself. It is very difficult to watch your child struggle or be uncomfortable. They might even be begging and pleading for you to make it better. But don’t jump in right away and fix it for them.
When children are anxious, it can raise our own anxiety levels. Their elevated emotions might make situations seems like a crisis, when in reality it is not. In order to not fall into this “reactor” trap, it is always best to give yourself time to step away from the situation or problem and think about your game plan first. This means you might have to tell your child you don’t have an answer right away, and then you can choose your action reasonably rather than rely on a quick reaction.
Anxious people, young and old, crave reassurance. They want to hear that everything is going to be okay. Unfortunately reassurance is usually not enough. If it was, you wouldn’t have to say the same thing a hundred times a day. Have you ever found yourself saying…
- I promise nothing bad will happen.
- You will be fine.
- I won’t let that happen.
Reassurance is well intended, but we don’t always think about the message we are sending with reassurance. When we reassure we often indicate that we have control over all outcomes. We make promises we can’t always keep. Reassurance also takes the focus away from adaptive coping. The focus becomes on trusting what other people say will happen rather than on the child’s own skills and abilities. And what will they do if someone isn’t around to reassure them? Then what?
Anxious kids spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to not feel uncomfortable. This usually results in what we call safety behaviors. They do things that make them feel better in the moment, like avoid, escape, distract, or perform rituals. Since it sometimes works, they keep doing it.
They also form a lot of rules and restrictions which typically start to impact other people as well. Parents might find themselves doing things they never thought they would do, but it seems like the only way to help their child feel better. For example, maybe you allow your child to avoid situations, make excuses for them, or take over their responsibilities. Perhaps you tolerate bizarre requests like sleeping in their room all night, making different meals for them, or not touching items they don’t want you to touch due to germs. Maybe you tolerate two hours showers or haven’t been on a vacation in years due to their fears. You might even help them perform rituals like buy them new soap every day or wash their towel every night. You call ahead to make sure there will not be a dog at the party or talk for your child in public.
Whatever safety behaviors your child is performing or you are helping them perform, it is only a short term fix. It is not solving the real issue. I often advise parents, unless they want to perform that same behavior for years, to not even start. It becomes a pattern, ultimately doing nothing but reinforce the fears.
This might seem like common sense, but it is done all the time. Without even being aware of it, kids might be rewarded for their anxiety. We call this secondary gain, when there is some unintended benefit that comes from anxious responses. Ask yourself if your child gets any of the following because of their anxiety…
- Fewer household chores
- Not required to complete certain tasks
- More time and attention from parents
- Special privileges
- Allowed to skip school or activities and do something more enjoyable instead
These rewards and benefits also continue to maintain anxiety. Of course you would choose to hang out with mom or dad and watch a movie rather than go to an open house where there are lots of people you don’t know. So rather than rewarding anxiety, we want to reward practicing skills, flexibility, and brave behaviors.
The more you understand your child’s anxiety patterns, the more you can help. Immediate relief, reassurance, and accommodation will only make it better in the short term. In order to make lasting changes, you will have to help your child approach their fears rather than avoid them. Teaching your child coping skills such as normalizing emotions, learning to self soothe, and increasing flexibility will enhance their resilience and confidence.
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