Strategies for Parents with Anxious Children
Childhood Anxiety and Symptoms
Imagine the following scenario. Your daughter, Grace, is complaining of a stomach ache in the morning. She seems down and she had trouble sleeping the night before. You check her temperature and everything seems normal. She is not physically ill. And since this has been happening since the beginning of the school year two weeks ago, you suspect that Grace has anxiety.
Your first instinct is to try to comfort her and ease the pain she is emotionally. You try to reason with her by mentioning how fun it will be for her to spend the day with her friends. She doesn’t say anything. Then, you try to provide reassurance. “I promise you, sweetie, you will be okay. No need to worry at all.” Grace looks at you and begs to not make her go. At this point, you are angry and threaten her with no TV and taking away her Ipad if she doesn’t go. She reluctantly gets on the school bus, and you feel miserable.
This scenario probably does not seem unusual for many parents. As many as 1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety. Some of them miss school, social activities, or sports practice, others have difficulty sleeping or are afraid of real (insects, thunder, strangers) or imaginary things (monsters and ghosts).
The most common signs of anxiety in children are (kidshealth.org):
• Becoming clingy, impulsive, or distracted
• Nervousness, twitches
• Problems with sleep
• Sweaty hands
• Accelerated breathing or heart-rate
• Headaches, stomachaches
Whatever may be causing the child’s anxiety, parents often feel frustration and helplessness in trying to help their children, often without success. Even though there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to childhood anxiety problems, there are many research-based techniques that can help. This blog will focus on highlighting some of these techniques.
Strategies for Helping Kids with Anxiety
Teach your child about anxiety/worry and why its is good
Anxiety has an evolutionary purpose. Worrying and anxiety alerted our ancestors to danger in their environment. Worry today is still a protective mechanism. When it occurs without a real threat, it operates as a false alarm. The good news is that everyone experiences anxiety from time to time and there are simple techniques that can help children tolerate and manage it better.
Do not reassure your child
Telling children that they should not feel nervous or anxious is not effective. In fact, when children are anxious, the logical part of their brain (frontal lobe) is temporarily blocked and the emotional part of the brain takes over. It is hard to think clearly and logically during this time. What can be helpful, however, is to slow down and take deep breaths, and empathize with your child. Once he/she is calm, look for possible solutions to the problem.
The goal is not to eliminate anxiety but to teach your child to manage it.
The idea is that anxiety will decrease over time when children learn to tolerate it in the short run and function as well as they can while being anxious. While it is not possible to assure a child that their fear is unrealistic, it is possible to to help them understand that they will be okay, they will be able to handle and manage their feelings and that if they do that, over time their anxiety will decrease. This ties in with the next strategy.
Do not avoid things that make your child anxious.
When children avoid things that make them nervous, it may make them feel better in the short-term but it reinforces the anxiety in the long-term and makes the problem worse. Habituation is a term that explains how as children initially face their fears, they may experience anxiety, however, over time the anxiety decreases. This is how we get over our fears.
Teach your child to identify their thoughts and have an internal dialogue
Anxiety is often the result of negative/distorted thinking. Children can learn to make their thinking more accurate by first catching their thoughts, then collecting evidence to support or negate the thoughts and then challenging the thought by having an internal debate.
Allow your child to worry
Allocating time (10-15mins daily) for worrying can be helpful. Children can be encouraged to spend a short time daily when they write about their worries and put them in a “worry box”. After the 15 minutes, the box is closed and they say good-bye to their worries for the day.
Help your child stay in the present
When children are anxious, they are often thinking about the future. “What if I won’t have any friends at baseball practice?” Focusing on hypothetical future scenarios exacerbates anxiety. Helping children come back to the present moment through deep breathing, visual imagery and mindfulness exercises can diminish worrying.
Keep the anticipatory period short
Most often anticipating something is way worse than actually experiencing it. It can be very helpful for children to not have to endure a long anticipatory period before a feared situation. So telling your child that they are getting shots two hours early may get them upset and make it difficult for you to get them to the doctor’s office.
Discuss the worst-case scenario
Sometimes talking through a scary idea with your child is helpful. Discuss what would happen if you child’s fear came true and figure out how he/she would handle it. Chances are, talking through a scary scenario will ease your child’s anxiety about even the worst-case outcome.
Model healthy ways to manage anxiety
Children learn by observing and perceiving what is happening in their environment. It is very important for parents to model healthy coping with regards to anxiety. A parent can’t expect their child to learn to cope with anxiety if they themselves get too overwhelmed and have a hard time staying calm, tolerating the anxiety and moving on with their lives.
Be compassionate with yourself
Last, but not least - give yourself a break! You are not the cause of your child’s anxiety. Anxiety is the result of multiple factors – genetics, environment, temperament, past events, etc. Parents who blame and criticize themselves won’t be able to truly be there and help their child in need. Practice self-compassion and forgive yourself for mistakes. You are doing the best that you can with your child.
Strategies for Anxious Children References
Jain, R. (2015). 9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 4, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/stress-better/2014/11/9-things-every-parent-with-an-anxious-child-should-try/
Goldstein, C. (2015). What to do (and not do) when children are anxious. How to respect feelings without empowering fears. Child Mind Institute. Retrieved on May 4, from http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2010-11-24-how-parent-anxious-kids.