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Key Takeaways:

  • Parents of anxious children face many challenges, but thankfully, there are strategies that can make a difference.
  • Examples of parenting tips include teaching and modeling coping skills, offering validation, and advocating for the child’s needs.
  • Parents need to remember that they’re not alone. Help and support from others are always available.

Anxiety is prevalent among children in the United States, and about 9.4% (5.8 million) of kids aged 3-17 experience symptoms [*]. It’s more common than many might realize and can stem from different factors — genetics, significant life events, and expectations placed on kids. Parenting an anxious child, therefore, can be challenging.

If you’re raising one, you might find yourself constantly being on the lookout for signs of distress. Since anxiety can interfere with their ability to engage in school activities and socialize with others, parents often have to accommodate their child’s needs.

Learn how to parent a child with anxiety with the tips we’ve compiled below.

How to Parent a Child with Anxiety

To effectively parent an anxious child, it’s important to know their triggers, create a safe environment for them, and teach them coping skills. Here are 10 helpful tips:

1. Teach them to tolerate and cope with anxiety effectively.

As parents, we may feel tempted to “shield” our children from feeling more distress, but this doesn’t serve to be beneficial in the long run.

For instance, avoiding all social interaction is not a realistic or healthy goal for children with social anxiety. This is because social interaction is an essential part of life, and avoiding it altogether leads to more isolation and missed opportunities. Not to mention, it reinforces social anxiety symptoms.

Coping, on the other hand, involves facing anxiety-provoking situations gradually and using different techniques to gain mastery over their fears. Coping is a more sustainable, effective approach.

2. Give plenty of encouragement.

Facing triggers can be difficult for kids with anxiety, especially as they are also putting in the effort to confront their fears.

Let your child know that you appreciate their efforts, and remind them that the more they try to tolerate their anxiety, the more likely it will diminish. When you provide positive reinforcement, they’ll feel supported and believe that their hard work is paying off.

3. Incorporate calming activities into their routine.

Anxious children can benefit significantly from activities that bring stress relief. One proven strategy is exercise, which promotes physical fitness and acts as a “buffer” against stress and anxiety [*]. You may teach them child-friendly yoga poses or put on some upbeat music and allow them to dance freely.

Besides exercise, other activities that help relieve anxiety include making relaxation stones, journaling, using positive coping statements, and squeezing a stress ball.

4. Avoid communication patterns or behaviors that reinforce their fears.

Parenting a child with anxiety also involves taking care not to reinforce the child’s fears. Avoid suggesting, whether with your tone of voice or body language, that your child should be worried or afraid of something. This is especially important for parents or guardians who are anxious themselves.

For example, if your child expresses separation anxiety at school by clinging to you or refusing to enter the classroom, you need to stay calm during drop-off. Say a quick but reassuring “goodbye” and then leave promptly.

Conversely, showing them that you also feel anxious will only validate their fears.

5. Model healthy ways of coping.

Adults feel stress and anxiety too, and this can complicate things when you have a child who also has the same condition. The key is not to hide or deny your anxious feelings but to set an example of how to manage and get through it healthily.

Children learn by watching their parents and guardians. Whenever you model coping with anxiety healthily, your children will learn from you. For example, if you’re stressed about being late to work, verbalize how you feel and how you intend to manage your anxiety.

For parents of kids with sleep anxiety, try prioritizing consistent bedtimes and wake-up times for yourself as well as for your child. Set up a calm environment that promotes restful sleep, such as using dim lighting and avoiding screens.

6. Acknowledge their emotional experience as real.

Findings from a study on validation reveal that validation can have a positive impact on reducing a person’s negative emotions. They worry less and are more likely to feel supported when coping with their experiences [*].

However, it’s important to note that validating your child’s feelings or accepting their perspective doesn’t mean agreeing with their anxiety.

As parents, we can tell them, “I understand that you’re feeling nervous and I want you to know that it’s okay to feel that way.” Then, you can brainstorm problem-solving strategies together and teach coping skills.

7. Try to shorten the anticipatory period.

There is something called an anticipatory period, which is the time between wanting to do something we’re afraid of and actually doing it. Shortening this period can reduce anxiety.

For example, let’s consider a child with social anxiety and the child feels nervous about going to a birthday party. If the parent tells the child about the party weeks in advance, the child may spend that entire time worrying and ruminating.

However, if the parent waits until the day before or the morning of the party to inform the child, the anticipatory period is much shorter. This strategy gives the child less time to dwell on their fears, but they’ll also have some time to prepare in advance.

8. Act as your child’s advocate.

When parenting kids with anxiety, it’s always important to act as your child’s advocate. You know your child best, and it is essential to their well-being that you support them and their needs. It can be difficult but don’t give up on your child. Dig deep, remember what you love about them, and remind them to find those things in them as well.

Also, stay informed about anxiety and how it affects your child’s mental health by checking out available resources and joining support groups.

9. Use visual schedules.

Visual schedules can be incredibly helpful tools when parenting kids with anxiety. They can offer routine, structure, and predictability in their lives [*].

A visual schedule would outline all their day’s activities, including their morning routine, school activity, play or leisure time, and homework time. We recommend incorporating simple age-appropriate icons or symbols to represent each activity so that your child can easily follow along.

10. Don’t forget to learn how to ask for help.

They often say that it takes a village to raise a child. This can be true when it comes to helping your child manage their anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. As long as it comes from other trusted individuals who are involved in your child’s life, working together can be very beneficial for you as well.

Seek support from a mental health professional who specializes in working with children and anxiety. Their knowledge and experience can offer you and your child additional strategies to manage anxiety effectively.

What to Avoid When Parenting an Anxious Child

While we recommend trying the tips above, there are also some things you should avoid doing when your child is anxious:

  • Rushing your child
  • Saying dismissive statements such as “Don’t worry” or “It’s all in your head”
  • Exposing your child to your own anxiety or panicked feelings
  • Setting a time limit on anxious feelings
  • Treating it like a sink-or-swim situation
  • Emphasizing what your child will miss out on
  • Scaring children into behaving
  • All-or-nothing responses
  • Feeling the need to “rescue” your child from discomfort
  • Making all the decisions for your child
  • Giving your child too much freedom

The Bottom Line

Being in tune with your child’s needs and implementing different solutions that work can help you find the best way to manage their anxiety.

Still, if their anxiety persists despite your efforts, then it is best to consult with a professional for treatment. Feel free to check out our anxiety-related articles or anxiety worksheets for more education and practical strategies.

References:

  1. Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health | CDC. (2022, June 3). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
  2. Li, Y., Xia, X., Meng, F., & Zhang, C. (2020). Association Between Physical Fitness and Anxiety in Children: A Moderated Mediation Model of Agility and Resilience. Frontiers in public health, 8, 468. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.00468
  3. Kuo, J. R., Fitzpatrick, S., Ip, J., & Uliaszek, A. A. (2022). The who and what of validation: an experimental examination of validation and invalidation of specific emotions and the moderating effect of emotion dysregulation. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40479-022-00185-x
  4. Selman, S. B., & Dilworth‐Bart, J. E. (2023). Routines and child development: A systematic review. Journal of Family Theory & Review. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12549

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