Helping Children Suffering with Anxiety
It can be a really troubling time (for children and parents/carers) when children are anxious. Even the most well-meaning parents/carers can fall into a negative cycle and, not wanting a child to suffer, actually exacerbate the youngster’s anxiety. It happens when parents, anticipating a child’s fears, try to protect him/her from them.
Here are some pointers we hope you find useful for helping children escape the cycle of anxiety:
1. The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it:
None of us want 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.
2. Don’t avoid things just because they make a 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/he feels—and her parents whisk him/her out of there, or remove the thing she’s afraid of, they've learned that coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.
3. Express positive—but realistic—expectations:
You can’t promise a child that their fears are unrealistic—that she/he won’t fail a test, that they will have fun at the party, or that another child won’t laugh at him during games. But you can express confidence that he/she's going to be okay, he/she will be able to manage it, and that, as he/she faces their fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives him confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask him to do something he can’t handle.
4. Respect his/her feelings, but don’t empower them:
It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. So if a child is terrified of going to the doctors, for example, 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 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.”
5. Don’t ask leading questions:
Encourage your child to talk about his/her feelings, but try not to ask leading questions— “Are you anxious about the big test? Are you worried about the party?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about the party?”
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 he/she should, indeed, be worried.
7. Encourage the child to tolerate his/her anxiety:
Let your child know that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to do what he/she wants or needs to do. It’s really encouraging them 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 he/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.
8. Think things through with the child:
Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if a child’s fear came true—how would they handle it? A child who’s anxious about her parents separating might worry about what would happen if they didn’t come to pick him/her up. So we talk about that. If your mum doesn’t come at the end of school, what would you do? “Well I would tell the teacher my mums not here.” And what do you think the teacher 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 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.
9. Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety:
There are multiple ways you can help kids handle anxiety by letting them see how you cope with anxiety yourself. Kids 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. I’m not saying to pretend that you don’t have stress and anxiety, but let kids hear or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, feeling good about getting through it.
10. Try calming activities:
There are many calming activities that can help children with anxiety. Have a look at mindfulness activities.
Mindfulness is about being ‘in the moment’ and focusing completely on what you’re currently doing - using all your senses to really experience it. That might sound challenging for little ones, but simple mindfulness exercises can be a great way to help children learn to pause and think before reacting.