12 ways to help your anxious child
A few weeks ago I wrote this post about identifying anxiety in children. Some of you may have recognised some of the signs of anxiety in your child. And if you did, you were probably wondering, well, now what? How do I help my anxious child? So, here are the answers. Here are lots of answers, actually. I’ve really packed them in, and it’s a bit of a long post, so let’s just dive right in. We can chit-chat some other time, ok?
1. Validate their feelings
It’s really easy to dismiss your child’s fears when you know they’re not real. “Don’t worry. There’s no such thing as monsters. You’re fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You don’t need to be scared. Don’t be so silly”. We say these things because we know they’re true. We’re trying to calm our children down by appealing to their sense of logic. We’re trying to help them feel better by letting them know there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The problem is, whether the thing they’re afraid of is real or not, their fear and anxiety, is very real. Saying these things to an anxious child won’t make them feel less anxious. In fact, you may make them feel worse, because then they feel like their feelings are wrong, and so now they also feel embarrassed, or ashamed, or a bit silly. AND they also still feel anxious.
It is more helpful to say something like, “I can see you’re feeling nervous/anxious/worried”. Or, “I know this is hard for you right now. I’m here for you.”
2. Help them challenge unrealistic or unhelpful thinking
When we feel anxious, we overestimate the chances of something bad happening, and/or we overestimate the amount of danger present in a situation. So we think things are more dangerous than they actually are, and we think they’re more likely to happen than they really are. Your anxious child is doing this too.
Help them identify the errors in their thinking. Ask them to tell you what they’re worried about. Encourage them to talk to you about their thought process. Try: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Or, “What do you think the chances are of that happening?” Help them come to that place of logic themselves by encouraging them to look for evidence of their fears: Have you ever seen the monster? Has anyone you know ever seen a monster? Has anyone you know ever been eaten by one? Can you think of another time you were scared? Did you get through it?
Don’t dismiss their thoughts as ridiculous, or laugh at them. They may sound far fetched to you, but they are serious worries for your child, and they are causing them serious distress. Be gentle.
3. Be wary of reassurance seeking
Children who are anxious will seek reassurance from you in a number of different ways. They may ask things like, Do you still love me? Is this right? Will you be here when I wake up? Did I sound silly? Do I look ok? Did you lock the door? Now these comments on their own are not necessarily problematic. But if your child is anxious, they can be.
Lots of parents fall in to the trap of offering their child reassurance when they are anxious. What’s the problem with that, you ask? I want to reassure my child that they’re ok. It helps them feel safe.
Well, what happens once you provide your anxious child with the reassurance? Do they stop asking for it? Maybe sometimes. Maybe at first. But eventually, they begin to ask for it more. They become reliant on that reassurance to manage their feelings of anxiety. They become reliant on you to manage their anxiety. This can actually worsen their anxiety because then they feel they cannot cope without you. And if they can’t get through it without you, then it must be really scary! You unwittingly become part of the anxiety. You’re sending them the message that there really is something to be afraid of, and that it’s so scary, they cannot cope with it on their own.
I know it seems counterintuitive, and lots of parents really struggle with this. But you’re just gonna have to trust me. We want to empower them to manage their anxiety on their own. To provide themselves with reassurance. So stop it. Right now.
4. Help them rate the strength of their anxiety
Giving their anxiety a rating out of 10 can be really useful for a few reasons. First of all, the feeling of anxiety can be very overwhelming. It can be hard to step back and consider the facts of a situation when you are feeling anxious. A rating scale helps anxious children put their feelings into perspective. The experience of anxiety itself can actually cause more anxiety. Putting a number on it can help it feel more manageable, and eliminate some of that secondary anxiety.
It also acts as a marker to help them compare previous experiences to the current one. If they know their anxiety level today is 6/10 and yesterday it was 8/10, then they can feel more confident to get through today, knowing that they managed with higher levels of anxiety yesterday. Older children will be able to rate their feelings on a scale using numbers (0-10), but for younger children this may be a bit abstract for them. You could try something like smiley faces or emojis instead – put a sad face at one end, a happy face at the other and a neutral face in the middle.
5. Avoid avoidance
Ok, this one is HUGE. So often I speak to parents who are allowing their anxious child to completely avoid the thing that makes them anxious. School is an example I see frequently. A child is struggling at school due to anxiety, and so a parent lets them stay at home. Or home schools them. Now. There is nothing wrong with homeschooling your child if you feel that’s the best thing for them. I’m all for parents making decisions that are best for their family. But it is more than likely not the best thing for your child if they are anxious. In fact, except in very are circumstances, I would NOT recommend it.
Why? When we avoid things, we never learn that we can cope with them. We become more anxious because we have no recent experience with them, and we don’t develop the skills we need to cope. It becomes a vicious cycle. Because we’ve been avoiding it, we lack the skills to cope with it, so if we do need to face it again, we become even more anxious and this reinforces the belief we have that it’s scary.
The only way we learn that something is not scary, is by doing it. We learn that our worst fear won’t actually come true and we can actually cope with it after all. This increases feelings of competence and gives us the confidence to do it again.
Sometimes avoidance looks like not doing an activity at all eg refusing to go to school. Sometimes, anxiety looks like leaving a situation when your anxiety levels increase eg going to the sick bay when you start to feel anxious. Both of these examples reinforce the idea that you cannot cope, and make your anxiety worse.
6. Don’t throw them into the deep end
So now you might be thinking, ok, I’ll just force them to do that thing they’re anxious about. Well, no. It’s not that simple. If you force your anxious child into a situation that they have no skills to cope with yet, and that causes them to become highly anxious, they will fail. They will become so anxious that they won’t be able to cope. They may escape or avoid the situation. And once again, you’ve reinforced the idea that they can’t cope and that the situation really is scary after all. This will worsen their anxiety.
There is some evidence that if you leave a person in an anxiety provoking situation long enough, their anxiety will eventually disappear. It’s called flooding. But I don’t recommend it. Especially for children. The initial increase in their anxiety this will cause is just not worth it, and it can be quite traumatic for a developing brain. No to mention the damage it could do to your relationship. So what to do instead?
7. Set small, achievable goals
This is where a rating scale comes in very handy. Going to school for a whole day is a 10/10 on the anxiety scale? Ok. That’s the ultimate goal then. Help them create a “stepladder”. A set of small goals they can gradually achieve as they work up to the main goal. Find out what 1/10 is on the anxiety scale and start with that. Maybe it’s getting dressed in their school uniform. Or going to the school gates. Or saying hello at the school office. Each child will have a different answer, and that’s ok. Let them lead the way when it comes to setting these goals. If they own them, they’re more likely to complete them.
The idea is to set them up to succeed. Start with easier tasks that may make them feel just a little anxious. Make sure they complete the task for long enough that their anxiety levels go way down again. They’ll get a sense of what it feels like to cope with that anxiety and they’ll feel more capable of coping with it again in the future. Then have them move along the stepladder crossing off those goals until they reach the big one.
Each child will take a different length of time to reach their end goal, and that’s ok. As long as they keep moving.
8. Teach them breathing techniques
Now if we’re going to ask them to cope with their anxiety, even in small amounts, we’d better give them some tools to use! Breathing exercises are a fantastic one, because anyone can do them, they require no special equipment, and they can be done anywhere without others noticing what you’re doing.
We know that when someone experiences anxiety, the fight or flight response is triggered. This is essentially a stress response triggered by the presence of a threat. It is a response designed to prepare our bodies, so that in the face of a threat we can escape or fight, in order to survive. One of the symptoms of the fight or flight response is an increase in breathing rate. This occurs because our body is taking more oxygen on board to help fuel our muscles.
However, it can make us feel light headed, dizzy and cause trembling arms and legs. It generally contributes to the feelings of anxiety and makes us feel worse. But we can trick our bodies into thinking the threat is gone, by slowing down our breathing. This also helps eliminate the symptoms that are occurring because of the breathing – so it helps us feel better all round.
A simple breathing strategy for your anxious child to try, is to take a deep breath in through their nose for three counts, filling up their belly with air. Hold it for a second. Then take three counts to exhale, pushing all the air back out of their belly, at a slow steady rate. If they continue to do this, they will be able to reset their nervous system, turn the stress response off, and calm their body and their mind. You’ll find some more useful breathing exercises in my FREE kids mindfulness workbook.
9. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness has been proven to help manage feelings of anxiety. If you’re not sure what mindfulness is, you can read my blog post here. But basically, mindfulness is about focusing on the present. Anxiety is about focusing on the future, or the past. On what-ifs. When we are anxious, we worry about what is to come, or we worry about something that has already happened. So practicing mindfulness frequently can help an anxious child learn how to remain focused on what is happening right now. It helps them to get out of their heads, and focus on what’s going on around them, instead of going over and over all the possibilities that could happen in the future, or all the ‘mistakes’ they made in the past.
When we are mindful of our thoughts and feelings, we learn to treat them as “just” thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings come and go. They do not last forever and they cannot hurt us. We can feel anxious about something and know that eventually, the anxiety will go away. We can “ride the wave”. Mindfulness also teaches us that we can feel anxious but go ahead and do something anyway. Mindfulness helps us to stop avoiding things because we are anxious. It teaches us that we do not need to be controlled by our emotions.
10. Don’t rush in to solve their problems for them
Children need to learn how to cope. The only way they learn this, is by doing difficult things. We think we are helping as parents, by shielding them from difficulties. Of course, no parent wants their child to suffer, Especially if they can quickly and easily “fix” a situation for their child. But the problem with this, is that it sends the message to a child that they are not capable. They are not competent. And this makes them anxious to do it alone. Or at all. And if they’re not able to do this thing, maybe they won’t be able to do that other thing either. And so it generalises. And you end up with an anxious child who doubts themselves and their abilities so much, they become too afraid to try anything.
Let them try things for themselves. Help them set small goals, as I mentioned earlier. Let them take measured risks. Let them find out for themselves whether they are capable or not. If they’re having a problem with a friend for example, let them know you believe they can handle it on their own. Don’t rush up to the school and demand a meeting with their teacher. Don’t contact the friends mother. By all means there may be a place for these things later, depending in the situation. But allow your child a chance to try and fix it themselves first. Help them brainstorm strategies to deal with the situation if they are stuck. But let them try those strategies for themselves. This is how they learn they can do it.
11. Manage your own anxiety
Can I drop a truth bomb on you right now? You might not like hearing it. But I need to tell you this. In my 13 years of working as a psychologist, I have never, ever, not once, met an anxious child who did not also have at least one anxious parent. Now, I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m just saying I’ve never met one.
Obviously, all parents of kids with anxiety don’t have anxiety disorders themselves (although sometimes they do). But there is always a little bit of anxiety sneaking in somewhere. Kids will do that to us! As parents, it’s important that we are aware of our own insecurities and worries and how we are projecting these out into the world. Because we all have them, and our children absolutely notice them. We all worry about things – this is normal. But how we manage these worries has an impact on our children. We need to show them how to effectively manage feelings of anxiety and worry. So think about the message your words and actions are conveying to your child. Because your child picks up your anxiety whether you mean them to or not.
And if you do suffer from an anxiety disorder, you absolutely need to address it. I don’t tell you this to make you feel guilty. If you suffer from anxiety, it is not your fault any more than it is your child’s fault. But I’m telling you, your child notices it. They notice the way you avoid certain things. They notice how you avoid certain people. They notice the way you become a little snappy and irritable in shopping centres. They notice the way you always ask them to be careful. They notice the panic attacks you think you’re hiding. They are always watching and they pick these things up.
I know it seems daunting, but you can change it. In fact, I’ve just given you a bunch of ideas for managing it! It is the single biggest thing you can do for your anxious child. Not to mention for yourself! If you do nothing else – if all you do is get your own anxiety under control, you will see a change in your child. They do not have to live with anxiety. And neither do you.
12. Get help
Ultimately, you know your child. If you’ve tried these strategies already and they don’t seem to be working, or you believe your child’s anxiety is already beyond the point where these strategies will be effective, or even if you’re just unsure and want some advice and support? Please. Consult a professional. There is no need for you or your child to suffer with anxiety. It is treatable. Your GP or school counsellor are great resources to begin with, and will be able to direct you to the best service for you and your child.
And for some fabulous resources you can use at home, at school, or even as an adjunct to therapy, see the anxiety section of the shop here.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.