When a child has been anxious for a long period, even the most well-meaning parents can fall into a negative cycle and, not wanting their child to suffer, actually exacerbates the child's anxiety. It happens when parents, anticipating a child's fears, try to protect their child. Here are some ideas for helping children escape the cycle of anxiety and develop personal resilience.
1. Managing Anxiety
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 children overcome anxiety and replace it with a positive emotion isn't to try to remove them from stressful situations. 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 by-product of that, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.
2. Avoid Avoidance
Don't avoid things just because they make your 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 term. If a child in an uncomfortable situation gets upset, starts to cry—not to be manipulative, but just because that's how she feels—and their parents whisk them away, or remove the thing they're afraid of, they've learned that coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.
Express positive, but realistic expectations.
You can't promise a child that their fears are unrealistic—that they won't fail a test, that they will have fun ice skating, or that another child won't laugh at them during show & tell. But you can express confidence that they are going to be okay, they will be able to manage it, and that, as they face their fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This will not only help them develop a positive outlook but also give them confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you're not going to ask them to do something they can't handle.
4. Respect Feelings
Respect their feelings about what they deem to be difficult situations, but don't empower them.
It's important to understand that validation doesn't always mean agreement. If a child is terrified about going to the doctor, you don't want to belittle their fears but you also don't want to amplify them. You want to listen and be empathetic, help them to understand what they're anxious about, and encourage them to feel that they can face their fears. The message you want 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." In doing so, you help them build and strengthen their emotional resilience.
5. Don't Ask Leading Questions
Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, but try not to ask leading questions such as "Are you anxious about your spelling test? Are you worried about being in the school concert?"
To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, which may potentially lead to psychological stress, just ask open-ended questions: "How are you feeling about your spelling test?"
6. Don't Reinforce the Child's Fears
What you don't want to do is be saying, with your tone of voice or body language: "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 she's around a dog, you might be anxious about how she will respond, and you might unintentionally send a message that she should, indeed, be worried.
It's better to desensitize your child to adverse situations by taking small steps. Try looking at pictures of different breeds online and talking about what feelings they trigger. Next, watch dogs at play at a dog park from a safe distance. Finally, ask to visit with a calm, older dog of a friend or a therapy dog. By taking small steps, children can learn to work through their fears and worries.
7. Encourage the Child to Tolerate Their Anxiety
Let your child know that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what they want or need to do. It's really encouraging them to engage in life skills and to let the anxiety take its natural course. This is called the "habituation curve"—it will drop over time as they continue to have contact with the stressor. It might not drop to zero, it might not drop as quickly as you would like, but that's how we get over our fears.
8. Try to Keep the Anticipation Time to a Minimum
When we're afraid of something, the hardest time is really before we do it. Another rule of thumb for parents is to really try to eliminate or reduce the anticipatory period. If a child is nervous about going to a doctor's appointment, you don't want to launch into a discussion about it two hours before you go; that's likely to get your child more worked up. So just try to keep that period to a minimum.
9. Think Things Through With the Child
Sometimes talking through what would happen if a child's fear came true can contribute to building resilience. It gives a child a sense of control and the ability to decide how they would handle it. A child who's anxious about separating from their parents might worry about what would happen if they didn't come to pick her up. Discuss this with your child. "If your mum doesn't come at the end of soccer practice, what would you do? "Well I would tell the coach my mum's not here." And what do you think the coach would do? "Well he would call my mum. Or he would wait with me." A child who's afraid that a stranger might be sent to pick them up can have a code word from their parents that anyone they sent would know. For some children, 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 children handle anxiety and hone their resilience skills by demonstrating your own stress resilience during stressful life events. Children 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. Don't pretend that you don't have stress and anxiety, but let your child hear or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, feeling good about getting through it.
11. Empathise Often
Anxiety can be paralysing for young children. When children feel completely overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and negative emotions, they struggle to do everyday things like attend school or go to soccer practice. Anxious children even avoid fun things like play dates and movies. It's important to empathise with your child. This normalises what they experience and helps them understand that they aren't alone, and you will guide them through it.
12. Help Them Build a Coping Kit
If you want to empower your child to work through their difficult emotions, you have to help them learn a variety of coping skills. One thing that helps anxious children is having a concrete list of strategies to use in a moment of anxiety. While some can memorise a list of strategies, others might need to write them down. You could try some of these suggestions:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation, i.e. stress ball
- Write it out
- Talk back to worries and reframe thoughts
- Get help from an adult
Final tip: Take care of your own needs, too. Parenting an anxious child can be all-consuming. Between interrupted sleep and constant worries, child anxiety can take a toll on the caregivers. Make sure to prioritise your own health needs so that you have the energy you need to help your child through this difficult time.Originally published on Sep 08, 2021