Our last blog post discussed some unexpected signs that your child may be experiencing anxiety. If you notice your child having any of those symptoms, your next question may be, “how do I best support them or help them cope?” Many parents mean well, but often reinforce their child’s anxiety by allowing them to stay home from school, or avoid extracurricular activities, or fail to work on their own worries. By helping them avoid their fears, we are also letting them miss out on opportunities to develop their own coping skills and prove to themselves they can deal with the anxious thought or feeling next time it comes up.
Try these strategies instead:
Help them shift their thinking.
Children with anxiety often get trapped in their negative thoughts, thinking “what if?” and focusing on the worst-case scenario. When they share these thoughts with you, it is helpful to encourage more positive thinking by:
reminding them of times they’ve dealt with similar issues in the past and how things worked out just fine
helping them to challenge the scary thought with facts and evidence (for example; “can a monster survive under your bed?”)
make a “gameplan” for how they’ll respond if things don’t go as they’d hoped – reminding them of their coping skills
Climb the ladder.
Instead of avoiding the anxiety-inducing situation, try a technique called ‘laddering’ – breaking down their worries into manageable chunks and gradually working towards a goal. This is a form of exposure therapy often used in the context of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which requires the parents’ involvement to be successful.
Let’s say your child is afraid of water and swimming. Instead of avoiding the pool, create some mini-goals to build their confidence. Start out by just sitting and watching other kids swimming. As they feel more comfortable, get them to try dangling their legs in the water, then standing in the shallow end, and so on (1). This slow and deliberate exposure to their fears helps them realize that it isn’t so scary after all – and that they are able to cope with any bad feelings that may come up in the process.
Take a breath.
Emotional regulation and self-soothing are crucial to managing anxiety, in both adults and children. Help your child calm down by taking slow, deep breaths together. Breathe in through the nose for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and out through the mouth for 5 seconds. Doing these exercises will help reverse the fight-or-flight switch in their brain and calm their physical symptoms of anxiety (rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking).
Model healthy coping.
Children are incredibly perceptive and pick up on our stress management skills, or oftentimes lack thereof. We are the model for how to cope with feelings, and if our stress and anxiety response is unhealthy, chances are our children will follow. Don’t just tell your child how to overcome emotions – show them. When you get anxious or stressed, verbalize how you’re coping with the situation: “This looks a little scary, but I’ll try it anyway.”
Be aware of the messages you’re sending.
Parents have a tendency of wanting to “save” their children and swoop in to avoid them having to experience anxiety or fear. Be careful with this behavior: rescuing your kid every time they face a difficult situation sends the message that they are incapable of handling things on their own. If you’re prone to ‘helicoptering’, try taking a step back and waiting next time before you jump in. It can be hard seeing your child distressed, but figuring things out for themselves is an important step in building resilience (1).
Parents are the frontline of defense against childhood anxiety. Your response is key in helping your child build self-confidence. Therapy can also be incredibly beneficial in managing anxiety – cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other forms of therapy, in combination with parenting support, is a tried-and-true treatment for kids experiencing anxiety and fear. Our clinicians at Calm Mind Counseling Center specialize in treating children and adolescents with anxiety, and would love the opportunity to discuss the best treatment plan for your child.
Beyond Blue: Strategies to support anxious children.