Several weeks ago I posted a Blog about childhood anxiety being a condition that often flies under the radar. In that Blog a number of signs and symptoms were described. But what do we do when we realize our kids are struggling? As parents, we try to protect our children and limit their exposure to uncomfortable experiences. The problem with that impulse, is that when our kids are anxious, even the best parents can start a negative cycle and actually make a child’s anxiety worse, rather than better. This happens when we as parents try to anticipate what makes a child anxious and protect them from those experiences. Here are some ideas about how to help children learn to cope better with anxiety provoking situations.
- The goal is to help a child learn to manage anxiety: No one wants their child to be unhappy. However, the best way to help is to allow them to engage anxiety producing situations and then help them work through them. This helps them learn skills they can use when you’re not around to calm themselves when faced with a situation that causes them distress. 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.
- It’s okay to do things or allow your children into situations that 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 run. 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 her parents whisk her out of there, or remove the thing she’s afraid of, she’s learned that coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.
- Be positive and realistic about what your child might experience: You can’t promise a child that her fears are unrealistic—that she won’t fail a test, that he’ll have roller blading, or that they won’t be laughed at. However, you can let them know that they will be okay anyway that they will be able to manage it, and that it will be easier next time. This gives confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask them to do something they can’t handle.
- Acknowledge how they feel don’t but empower their anxiety: It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. If your child is terrified about giving a presentation at school, you shouldn’t belittle their fears, but you don’t want to amplify them either. Focus on listening and being empathetic,help them understand what it is that makes them anxious, and encourage them to know they can face what they are afraid of. 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.”
- Don’t start the problem by asking leading questions: Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, but don’t ask leading questions— “Are you anxious about the big test? Are you worried about the science fair?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about the science fair?”
- 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 thisis 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.
- 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 she wants or needs to do. It’s really encouraging her to engage in life and to let the anxiety take its natural curve. We call it the “habituation curve”—it will drop over time as she continues 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.
- Try to keep the anticipatory period short: When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time is reallybefore we do it. 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 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 keyed up. So just try to shorten that period to a minimum. During this time is when there is lots of benefit in reassuring and soothing and empathizing.
- Think things through with your child: Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if a child’s fear came true—how would she handle it? A child who’s anxious about separating from her parents might worry about what would happen if they didn’t come to pick 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 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.
- Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety: There are many ways you can help kids handle anxiety by letting them watch how you cope with anxiety yourself. Kids are great observers and they’re going to know when you’re stressed or anxious by the conversations they overhear and by body language you exhibit. Don’t try to pretend that you don’t have stress and anxiety, but let kids hear or see that you are managing it calmly, tolerating it, and feeling good about getting through it.
These are just a few ideas about how to help your kids manage anxiety. Many of you have used other strategies to help your kids through difficult times. Please take a moment to jot a few down for other’s to try. There is true power in the insight and experiences of many.
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