Temper Tantrums and Meltdowns, Behavioral issues, Parenting strategies
1 June, 2023
Raising your Anxious Child
The do's and don’ts of parenting anxious children
By: Nicole Henderson, B.A (Educ.), RP (Qualifying)
Being a parent is often the most important, yet hardest job that a person can have. Parenting an anxious child can be exceptionally challenging. That being said, there are lots of ways to help your child cope with their anxiety. Anxiety is a natural experience for all humans, including children. Anxiety is defined as mental and physical nervousness and uneasiness, often causing increased tension, usually associated with pressure to please, fear of failure, or fear of the unknown. Anxiety may be connected to specific events, or it can be unattached to any one particular thing. Anxiety can range from being mild to completely debilitating and is one of the most common mental disorders in the world, even for children. While we all experience anxiety to an extent, anxiety becomes a problem when it interferes with daily functioning.
Parents with good intentions may attempt to protect their child from their fears, however, overprotecting a child can actually make their anxiety worsen. This worsening effect is known as the cycle of anxiety. When individuals are faced with a situation that causes them to feel anxious, there is often an urge to avoid the situation. Avoiding a situation provides relief from anxiety, however, the symptoms are only reduced temporarily. When the situation is avoided, the individual’s anxiety will gradually worsen because they have not had an opportunity to challenge their worries and face what is causing them anxiety. As a result, the symptoms of anxiety will become more intense, and the individual will be more likely to avoid the situation again in the future.
Here are some general suggestions for parenting an anxious child:
Don’t try to eliminate their anxiety.
As previously mentioned, we all experience anxiety from time to time. While no parent wants to see their child anxious or unhappy, it is important to remember that completely eliminating anxiety is highly unlikely. Instead, support your child to manage their symptoms and teach them how to perform their best, even when they feel anxious.
Don’t give your child unrealistic expectations.
It may be tempting to tell your child that their fears won’t come true, but do not make promises that you cannot keep. Telling a child that they won’t fail their test, that they’ll have fun at that birthday party, or that their classmates will not laugh at them when they do their presentation will only create problems if their fears become reality. Instead, share your confidence in them that they will be able to manage anything that comes their way, and that they will be okay. Encourage them to break the cycle of anxiety by exposing themselves to their worries, which will help them lessen their anxiety levels over time. By doing so, you will send the message to your child that you have reasonable expectations, and that you will not ask them to do something outside of their limits.
Don’t avoid the things that make them anxious
Avoiding the things that make your child anxious will only cause their anxiety levels to increase. While it may provide temporary relief, it only reinforces the anxiety in the long run. For example, if your child is in a situation that makes them uncomfortable and begins to cry or becomes upset, removing them from the situation will not allow them to learn how to cope, and the cycle of anxiety will likely repeat itself.
Don’t dismiss their anxious feelings
Provide a safe space for your child to express what they are thinking and feeling. Listen to what they have to say, be warm and empathetic, and help them make sense of what they are experiencing. For example, if your child is going to the doctor because they are due for a vaccine, and your child is anxious, do not dismiss what they are experiencing. Instead, encourage them to face their
fear. Use supportive language such as: “I know getting a shot can be scary, and that’s okay. I’m here for you, and I’m going to help you get through this”.
Don’t ask leading questions
Open up the conversation for your child to discuss their anxious feelings, but try not to ask leading questions. Leading questions such as “are you nervous about your soccer game tonight?” or “are you worried about your test?” may contribute to their anxiety. Open-ended questions such as “how are you feeling about your soccer game?” will provide space for your child to talk about how
they are feeling without adding to their anxious thoughts.
Be a role model for your child
Through showing your child how you manage your anxiety, you may be able to help them manage theirs. For example, if you continually complain about your anxiety and that you cannot handle it, your child will notice it. Children need to hear or observe you managing your worries and stressors reasonably, accept them, and feel good about getting through them.
Talk about worse case scenarios
In some cases, it can be helpful to talk through what would happen if your child’s fear came true. For example, a child with anxiety about separating from their parent(s) may express worries about what would happen if their parent did not come to pick them up. Talk through what could happen in the worst-case scenario with your child to ease their nerves. Ask them: “If I do not come to pick you up at the end of your soccer practice, what would you do?”. They may respond saying, “Well, I would go to my coach and tell them. Then my coach would call you, or he would wait with me.” Go over each possible situation with your child and role-play or discuss effective coping strategies and responses to help them manage the scenario. If they are unable to think of their own solutions, provide them with some options and ask them to choose.
Listen to your child’s perceptions and gently correct misinformation
If your child approaches you with a distorted or unrealistic perception of an event, help them challenge their thinking and correct their information. For example, if your child has a fear that the world will end soon because they read it online or heard it from a classmate at school, help them challenge their thought. Ask them, “are you 100% sure this is true?” “What evidence do you have to back this up?”. Once you help them gather evidence, you can help them determine if their thought is true or not.
Be mindful of your body language
Be careful of how you present yourself to your child, including your body language. For example, if your child had a negative experience with a dog, you may feel anxious the next time your child goes near a dog and be worried about how they may respond. Be mindful of your body language, even if you do not say anything, as it can reveal your worries and send a message to your child that they should be afraid.
Encourage your child to tolerate their anxiety
Communicate to your child that you are proud of them for making efforts to manage their anxiety. Encourage your child to live a full life and let their anxiety come and go. Their anxiety will drop as they continue to face their fears and stressors. It will likely not disappear, or may not reduce as fast as you were anticipating, but it will only be tackled by facing your fears. Encourage your child to take small steps toward facing their fears, take deep breaths, and think positive thoughts. Remind them that their anxiety can be managed, and does not have to be debilitating.
Build on your child’s personal strengths
Anxiety can often contribute to a low self-esteem. Supporting your child to build on their strengths, and celebrating what they are good at, can help them improve their self-esteem. When they are faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, remind them of their past triumphs and strengths that helped them get through situations like this in the past.
These parenting suggestions will support you to help your child manage their anxiety. If you are considering seeking out professional help for your child, remember that there is no shame in getting support.
Harmony Counselling welcomes you to contact us for a free phone consultation and guidance today!
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