Raising a child is already an enormous task, let alone being a parent to a child who suffers from anxiety. Extreme fears and worries can disrupt daily life and have a negative impact on the family.
Here are a few practical ways to treat anxiety and help your child to deal with anxiety.
Communication is key when you want to help an anxious child. Make the time to intentionally talk (and listen) to your child. Your child will know whether you are paying attention to them, so try your best to give your undivided attention when you spend time with your child. Talking to your child will make you aware of his/her concerns and worries, as well as come up with strategies to help them.
Some children may be more ‘chatty’ while others communicate better through other means, such as art. Look out for the best way to communicate with your child and understand what they are going through. Your child will start to share what they feel as they learn that is it safe to talk to you. Sometimes just listening to them can work wonders.
2. Set clear expectations
Part of having effective communication is to set clear expectations for your child. Many other children who have anxiety will also need this guideline, albeit with some accommodations.
For example, while some children may want to join every sport in school, the anxious child may want to avoid every after school activity. Set clear expectations about the activities that they are to attend and help them by teaching them how to manage their thoughts and emotions with regards to this. Additionally, you can start slow by making sure that the activities that they join do not have any anxiety triggers.
By doing so, you are teaching your child that it is possible to face and overcome their fears and worries.
3. Be open and honest
Good communication with your anxious child also entails you to be open and honest with them. Let your child know that you will be able to better understand their anxiety when they are open about it. It might be hard at first, especially for older children as they may feel embarrassed over what they are feeling. Your child will also learn the value of being open and honest as you model it out for them.
4. Offer unconditional love and support
Your child needs to know that you will be with them, no matter what happens. Your unconditional love and support means they will be able to lean on you. They know that you have their back and that you will be there for them as they learn to overcome their fear. There will be times when you feel frustrated with your child, but be patient because your love and support does matter.
5. Reframing thoughts
Anxiety is sometimes due to incorrect or irrational thought processes. These negative thoughts result in negative emotions such as panic. A child’s anxiety will then manifest in physical symptoms as well as in their behavior.
You can help your child overcome the distorted cognitions by working intentionally on reframing their thoughts to be more positive. You can help your child to do so in the following steps.
- Ask your child to name the fear or worry that she is thinking about. Your child might tell you that she is really scared of dogs.
- Ask your child to what the thought is telling them – She might say things like “The dog will bite me”
- Break down the worry together with your child. Check to see if the worry is right. “Many people have dogs as pets and they do not get bitten”
- Help your child to come up with a way to change the fear or worry into a positive thought. For example, ‘Dogs can be fun to have around, you can play catch with them”.
It is good to practice this even before your child is anxious so that when your child starts to get anxious, she will already have an idea of how to reframe her thoughts.
6. Help your child to face their fears
One of our first reactions as parents is to protect our children. This is especially true when we know that our child is struggling with a certain issue. As parents, the last thing we want to do is to expose our child to the thing that she is afraid of. While it is definitely not easy to balance between respecting your child and not giving in to the fear, facing their fears is a key step in helping them to overcome it.
Making a child face their fears does not mean that we are ignoring the reality of it. Instead, as we push them to take baby steps in overcoming their fears, we are giving them the tools to help them manage their anxieties. These tools will also help them to overcome other stressful situations that they might find themselves in in the future.
7. Tell them- Avoidance is not the answer
A child who is anxious will most likely do her best to avoid anxiety triggers. For example, if she has a phobia of dogs, she will avoid places such as parks, where there might be dogs. She might also not want to go to a friend’s house in case there is a dog there. However, avoiding a trigger stimulus will only allow the fear and anxiety to grow stronger.
One of the ways in which a specific phobia can be overcome is through exposure therapy. In this therapy, your child will be exposed to the trigger in small steps. For example, if it is the fear of dogs, the therapist will start off by showing pictures of dogs to your child and then maybe look at a dog in a cage.
This can then be followed by your child touching a small dog and once she is comfortable doing so, a bigger dog, and so on. While it is best to work with a therapist to ensure a safe environment, you can continue to encourage your child to face their fears outside of therapy sessions.
8. Build coping strategies
One of the best ways you can help your child to manage anxiety is to teach her coping skills and strategies. Coping strategies can include deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, journaling, and thought reframing. Getting help from a trusted adult can also be an effective strategy.
You can list out the strategies and keep it in a box that your child can go to when she starts to feel anxious. Practice the strategies with your child when they are not anxious so that they know what to do when anxiety takes hold.
9. Be Emphatic and listen to your child
Anxiety can be very overwhelming and may cause children to struggle with daily tasks and activities such as going to school. Your child may want to avoid social settings such as birthday parties and school trips because she has certain fears.
Try your best to empathize with your child and understand what she feels. By doing so, your child will know that she is not alone and that you will be there to help her process her anxiety.
10. Validate your child’s fear
As parents, we sometimes do not know how to respond to our child’s anxiety. This is especially so when their fears and worries are over things that are seemingly insignificant. Additionally, their worries sometimes interrupt daily life.
For example, your child might suddenly wake you up at 3am and tell that she is worried that she will be unable to make ends meet in the future when she is an adult because she is not doing well in school.
It is times like this that we need to filter our responses and make sure to not dismiss their fears and worries, even if it seems really irrational. Instead, validate their fears, and let your child know that she is heard and respected.
11. Build confidence
A big part of overcoming anxiety is by building confidence. Your child will have a better view of themselves and worry less about what others will think of her when she is more confident. This can be done step by step.
For example, if your older child is suffering from separation anxiety, you can help her through this by building her confidence in knowing that she will be okay even when apart from you. You can start with short separations – an hour at a grandparent’s house. Slowly extend the time apart as your child becomes more comfortable. When she gets more confident, she can have a sleepover at a friend’s place.
Do allow your child space to grow. Sometimes it might seem that progress is really slow, but don’t give up. As you continue to encourage your child and find opportunities to build her confidence, she will be able to overcome her anxiety over time.
12. Protect your child
Make sure that you provide your child with a safe space. Home needs to be a place where they can be themselves. A child with anxiety may feel like their home is the only place where they are safe. As much as you can, try to have a home environment will enable your child to grow.
However, as you take steps to protect your child, do not be overprotective. Allow them to try new things when they want to. Support their decisions, and if it is a bad decision that they are making, talk to them about the consequences that their actions will bring.
13. Get back to basics
Sometimes slowing down will have amazing results. It may be that your child is feeling overwhelmed by the many things that are happening in her life and is unable to cope with all of it. Get back to the basics and slow down. Have good healthy meals, take time to breath and rest. Make sure your child has some downtime to relax and unwind. Going for a walk or spending some time outdoors may also help your child to calm down.
Helping your child through anxiety is not an easy task. It requires a lot of energy and patience, but it is not impossible. If you feel that you are unable to help your child adequately, do not hesitate to look for professional help. Expecting immediate improvement will only set you and your child up for failure as overcoming anxiety is a process that takes time.