10 Ways to Help Your Child Deal With Anxiety

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Very well-meaning parents sometimes fall into an enslaving cycle by trying to save their child from suffering the feelings that come with anxiety.  Sometimes this unintentionally can make the child’s anxiety worse.  It happens when parents, anticipating a child’s fears, try to protect her from them.

Here are 10 things to keep in mind for helping children escape the cycle of anxiety.

1. The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it.
None of us wants to see a child unhappy, but the best way to help kids overcome anxiety isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it. It’s to help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious. And as a byproduct of that, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.

2. Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious.
Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it reinforces the anxiety over the long run. If a child in an uncomfortable situation gets upset, starts to cry—not to be manipulative, but just because that’s how he/she feels—and his/her parents whisk him/her out of there, or remove the thing he/she’s afraid of, he/she’s learned that coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.

3. Express positive ~ but realistic ~ expectations.
Promising a child that his/her fears are unrealistic may not be the best approach.  A better technique may be to express with confidence that he/she’s going to be okay, he/she will be able to manage it, and that, as he/she faces her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives him/her confidence that the parent’s expectations are realistic, and that the parent is not going to ask him/her to do something he/she can’t hchild jumps-off-diving-boardandle.

4. Empower your child not the anxiety.
It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. It is possible to respect your child’s feelings without empowering his/her fears. So if a child is terrified about going swimming, don’t belittle his/her fears, but also don’t amplify them. Listen and be empathetic, help him/her understand what he/she’s anxious about, and encourage him/her to know that he/she can face his/her fears. The better message to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.”

5. Don’t ask leading questions.
Encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings, but try not to ask leading questions; like, “Are you anxious about who will be at Suzie’s birthday party? Are you worried about going to Suzie’s birthday party?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about going to Suzie’s birthday party?”

6. Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.
Try not to use a tone of voice or body language that implies: “Maybe this is something that you should be afraid of.” Let’s say a child has had a negative experience with a dog. Next time he/she’s around a dog, you might be anxious about how he/she will respond, and you might unintentionally send a message that he/she should, indeed, be worried.

7. Encourage the child to tolerate her anxiety.
Let your child know that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what he/she wants or needs to do. It’s really encouraging him/her to engage in life and to let his/her feelings be present in the situation along with a means to cope with it. As time goes by and the child’s contact with the stressor increases, he/she will learn how to get over his/her fear.

8. Try to keep the anticipatory period short.
For many of us, the most difficult moments can be the time is just before we do the things we are anxious about. So another rule of thumb for parents is to really try to eliminate or reduce the anticipatory period. If a child is nervous about going into a social situation, try not to launch into a discussion about it two hours before you go; that’s likely to get your child more keyed up.  So just try to shorten that period to a minimum.

9. Think things through with the child.
Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if a child’s fear came true, how would he/she handle it? A child who’s anxious about separating from his/her parents might worry about what would happen if they didn’t come to pick him/her up. So we talk about that.  If your mom doesn’t come at the end of soccer practice, what would you do? “Well I would tell the coach my mom’s not here.”  And what do you think the coach would do?  “Well he would call my mom.  Or he would wait with me.” A child who’s afraid that a stranger might be sent to pick him/her up can have a code word from her parents that anyone they sent would know. For some kids, having a plan can reduce the uncertainty in a healthy, effective way.

10. Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety.
There are multiple ways you can help kids handle anxiety by letting them see how you cope with anxiety yourself. Kids are perceptive, and they’re going to take it in if you keep complaining on the phone to a friend that you can’t handle the stress or the anxiety. I’m not saying to pretend that you don’t have stress and anxiety, but let kids hear or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, feeling good about getting through it.

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