Having a child with anxiety can take us on an emotional roller coaster. We might wonder what to do when a child cries and drags their feet to school every day? How can you help a child ever get over an intense fear of dogs? What will happen when one child is so shy he/she almost never talks to other kids? There are so many questions that we just want solutions to! Thankfully, there is hope. Over and over, I have seen kids learn how to effectively cope with anxiety. Parents and caregivers are such an important part of their journey! Without further ado, here are 7 tips for parents who are trying to help a child experiencing anxiety.
1. Be a Helper, Not a Saver
It can be so heart-rending to watch a child struggle with overwhelming anxiety. We wish so much that we could just take their challenges away and protect them. Other times it can be extremely frustrating to work with a child who is overwhelmed with an anxiety that doesn’t make sense and so we give in and do almost anything to get some peace and quiet again. Either way, when we try to save children from anxiety-provoking situations we don’t do them any favors: they may form some misperceptions. When we save them from situations they might learn that they need us in order to get through anxiety and it reinforces that they aren’t strong or courageous enough to do it themselves. Or, they might learn that they narrowly escaped whatever it is they’re afraid of instead of learning that they can conquer fears and that they didn’t die from performance anxiety, for example. I like the analogy that we need to teach children that the teddy bear isn’t a real live bear.
So, instead of being a saver, be a helper. Learn how to be a coach that listens and encourages but also pushes them to achieve harder and harder things. Guide them step-by-step and work together on how to overcome the anxiety. Slowly have the children take over more and more while you take up a position more on the side-lines. Teach kids that they can be empowered and courageous and that they can handle their own feelings.
2. Utilize Books and Find Resources
Books can be such a great resource! Whether it’s picture books that tell a story kids can relate to, workbooks that outline several skills or books intended for parents to learn how to be an anxiety coach, books can introduce wonderfully helpful concepts and skills. I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite books about anxiety here.
Use any resource and medium that your child relates with to help them deal with anxiety. Movies, real-life examples, or apps are just a few other possible solutions that may be helpful.
3. Be Mindful of Your Own Anxiety As a Parent or Caregiver
It’s no secret that kids pick up on emotions and that they copy behaviors they see us do. With this in mind, try to remain calm and confident when your child is feeling anxious. Validating emotions is okay and even important to do! But there is a difference between empathizing and going down the worry hole with them.
All this being said, remember that anxiety is okay to feel and is a normal part of life. Don’t try to pretend that you never feel anxious or nervous. The happiest homes still have some hard days. Rather, notice and accept feelings of anxiety and try to cope with it in healthy ways. This sets a great example for kids. They can learn that all emotions are a part of life and that there are many different, wonderful ways to cope with it.
4. Validate and Problem Solve
As I alluded to above, try to understand where your child is coming from and validate their feelings of anxiety. Every feeling is real and acceptable, regardless of whether or not it is logical. Have you ever watched the video “It’s Not About the Nail?” It’s a hilarious sketch about a woman who refuses to acknowledge that she has a nail in her forehead until her friend validates her pain. We are often all this way. Helping children feel understood is an important step in responding to anxiety.
After children feel loved and understood it is often easier to then problem solve. Try to get kids engaged in the process so that they believe in it more. To read more about how to validate and problem solve, read our post Emotional Children 101: How Parents Can Better Relate to Their Emotional Tween and Teens and Deal with Their Difficult Behaviors
5. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
I wish there was a magic wand (or a magic skill for that matter) that would take all the anxiety away. Unfortunately, that is not the case and most often it is a slow but steady application of multiple skills that helps children cope with anxiety.
We don’t hike to the top of Mt. Everest without months of preparation. Similarly, we often do not conquer our fears in a day. Work up to the top step by step. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs they might look at and talk to a small dog through a fence before petting a gigantic pit bull. To read a fuller explanation of these concepts, read about my 5 favorite anxiety skills here.
6. Remember Nobody (and No Parent) is Perfect
It can be really easy to beat ourselves up as parents. This might be especially true when we’re worried if we’re doing the right thing for our anxious child. Most of the time we’re doing just great as parents. I believe we’re entitled to special inspiration for our children so that we can lead them wisely in this chaotic world. Even if we do make a mistake that’s okay. Every single parent makes a mistake– and we probably make one every day! It’s an opportunity to learn from them, change and grow and show our kids how to remedy mistakes in a healthy, self-compassionate way.
7. Find Hope and Seek Professional Help if Needed
Sometimes despite all of our best efforts anxiety is still too overwhelming. If anxiety is still significantly interfering with life or if unsafe behaviors or suicidal intent is present, please seek the help of a licensed professional.
Like I said above, there is hope! Many kids learn how to cope with it and there are many research-based skills out there that are proven to be effective in reducing anxiety.
Best of luck!
Disclaimer: This post does not provide therapeutic services. It does not diagnose or treat anxiety. Please seek the help of a licensed therapist if anxiety is overwhelming or unsafe.