Parents want nothing more than to see childhood remain a time of carefree wonder and joy for their children, an age of innocence wherein the troubles of the wider world are kept at a safe distance by caring adult oversight.
As such, the parents who have anxious children are faced with a difficult dilemma: How do they protect their children from the multitude of relatively “normal” activities (e.g. going to school, socializing with friends) that provoke anxiety and fear while also ensuring that they experience life fully and develop properly? How do they help their child manage anxiety?
There are no easy answers to the above question. Psychologist Tali Shenfield, PhD suggests that parents first evaluate the level of child’s anxiety with a free child anxiety screening test and then, depending on test results, use the following anxiety management strategies:
1. An “empathy first” approach
When most parents hear their child expressing irrational fears, their first response is to assure their child that, logically, there is nothing to worry about. While this act is well-intentioned, it’s usually ineffective; the brain of any anxious individual – young or old – is too engaged in the “fight or flight” response (wherein activity in the prefrontal cortex, the “logical” part of the brain, is suppressed) to properly process new information.
What an anxious child therefore really needs is a parent who simply feels with him- one who pauses with him, joins him in taking a few deep breaths, and then validates his emotions as being acceptable.
Once you have empathized with your child and he has visibly calmed down, then and only then should you look for possible solutions. Do this while engaging your child: Ask him what he thinks would help him to feel better and overcome his fears.
2. Avoid making your child feel like a problem to be fixed
Children – even children without chronic anxiety – frequently struggle with fears of being “different” from their peers or unacceptable to their parents. If your child feels like his anxiety means something is “wrong” with him, his issues with worry will only increase as he will be plagued by constant self-doubt.
To prevent the above from happening, avoid labelling your child (i.e. don’t call him an “anxious person” or a “worrier”); instead, explain to him fear’s historically beneficial role in protecting us from harm (i.e. our instincts once helped us to avoid predators in the wild).
Ideally, you should teach your child to see worry like a tool: It’s useful in some situations, but in others, our brains are simply reacting to “false alarms” due to instinct. Tell your child that it’s possible to learn a few simple methods for recognizing these false alarms and for dealing with them effectively.
3. Consider using play to help your child understand his anxiety
Role playing exercises, such as having your child create a character which embodies his worry, can help your child learn how to dismantle his anxieties. Use a toy (such as a doll or stuffed animal) to represent the character your child creates, then you and your child can sit together and practice talking the character out of his misplaced fears. Make sure that every time the character succeeds in overcoming his anxiety during the stories created for him, he ends up with a “happy ending” as a result.
4. Teach your child how to centre himself in reality
Our fears have a way of distorting reality, making situations appear much scarier than they actually are. To help your child overcome the mind’s innate tendency to exaggerate objects of worry, teach him to:
- Recognize worried thoughts as they happen. Visualization is useful here: Tell your child to imagine thoughts floating above his head in “thought bubbles,” then ask him to practice catching the fearful thoughts as they pop up.
- Deconstruct the thoughts he catches using factual evidence. Emphasize to your child that feelings are not facts. When faced with a worry, tell your child that he should weigh up factual evidence for and against what his mind is telling him (for example, if he fears failing a test, he should review the many times he has passed tests over the years and remind himself that he has studied thoroughly, making failure unlikely).
- Debate with his thoughts (if necessary). Using the facts he has just gathered, you child can debate with the worried thoughts his mind is producing until he eventually wins and overcomes them.
5. Allow your child to worry
The more your child feels as though he should be able to simply shove his worries away, the more he will believe he is somehow failing when he cannot. You should therefore avoid saying things like, “There’s no reason to be afraid” and instead encourage your child to express his worries.
Creating a “worry diary” is an excellent strategy for getting your child to vent what’s bothering him; have him spend 15 minutes a day writing down any worry that is weighing on him – no matter how small – and allow him to share those worries with you if he wishes. At the end of the 15 minutes, have him literally close the book on his worries and set them aside.
6. Affirm the importance of remaining in the present moment
Like anxious adults, anxious children spend a lot of time preoccupied with “what ifs.” Instruct your child to try to catch his “what if” thoughts and replace them with “what is” thoughts. For example, if he’s thinking, “What if my new friend stops liking me?” he should pause, focus on nothing but his breath for a few moments, then look around and take in “what is”: The sun shining as he waits for the bus, the sound of the birds in the trees, the feeling of the warm air.
Intentionally returning one’s focus to the present in this way (by focusing on sensory perceptions) is a form of Mindfulness, a popular therapeutic practice which has been repeatedly shown to lessen anxiety.
7. Help your child take “baby steps” in order to overcome fearful situations
It is usually impossible – and always unhelpful – for an anxious individual to avoid everything that is causing him anxiety. Instead, your child should try the “ladder” approach: Overcoming fearful situations by working up to them in a succession of small steps.
If your child is afraid of dogs, for instance, have him start by observing a familiar dog (one that belongs to a friend, for example) from a distance, then have him walk closer to the dog while it’s safely leashed, then have him try to pet the dog while another person is still holding the leash, and then finally, let him interact with the dog briefly while it’s off its leash. If this process is repeated a few times with a few different friendly dogs, your child will likely overcome his terror.
8. Have your child create a “calm down” checklist
Ask your child to write down a series of steps to take when he needs to calm down (e.g. pause, breathe deeply, count to ten, evaluate the facts of the situation, etc.), so that he has something clear to refer to when he begins to feel panicky and confused. Make sure that your child carries a copy of this checklist with him until he memorizes the steps.
9. Don’t blame yourself for your child’s anxiety
Many parents of anxious children wonder if they have somehow “caused” their child to become excessively fearful, but this is usually not the case: Genetics and environmental factors over which parents have limited control (bullying at school, for example, or a traumatic accident) often lie at the root of childhood anxiety – not “bad parenting.”
It’s important to avoid blaming yourself for your child’s anxiety; the more you do so, the more emotional you will become about the situation and the less able you will be to help your child stay calm (your own worry will eventually cause you to become reactive, which will affirm your child’s idea that there is something to be afraid of). Instead, see yourself as your child’s ally, a member of his team as he fights against anxiety.
Remember, being compassionate to yourself, as well as to your child, is essential when creating a calm, loving, and healthy home for your whole family. If you find yourself struggling to cope with your child’s anxiety, don’t go it alone – seek the aid of friends, family members, and if necessary, a mental health professional. With the right support, you and your child can triumph over irrational fears and live full, happy lives.