Anxiety in children is more common than you may think, and any parent or guardian with an anxious child knows just how challenging it can be. For your child, anything could be perceived as a threat that starts a fear response. It can be their older sibling taking away a toy, swimming lessons, or starting the school year with a new teacher.
Managing this anxiety together with your child is crucial to their well-being, but how do you go about doing it? Here, we’ve compiled some tips on parenting an anxious child that can help you.
Tips for Parenting an Anxious Child
Children who are always anxious have an alarm system that is constantly on. They need support in order to identify their triggers so they can learn how to manage their thoughts. Here is how to parent a child with anxiety:
1. Avoid trying to eliminate the anxiety completely
When helping your child with their anxiety, it may be tempting to try and eliminate the feeling completely so that they don’t feel any more distress. However, this may not be as effective as allowing kids to learn how to tolerate anxiety as best as they can. This will help the anxiety diminish over time. In some cases anxiety can be a useful emotion. But for anxious kids, it is important to realize the difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety.
Do your best as a parent or guardian not to get rid of the anxiety but help your child deal with it with your help. Using a coping with anxiety worksheet may guide you here.
2. Give plenty of encouragement
Children need plenty of encouragement, especially when facing anxiety in social situations. 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. It can be very difficult for children to face their fears, especially in social settings, and any opportunity to encourage the hard work they put in will help in the process of reducing anxiety.
3. Use visual schedules
Having visual aids can help children visualize intangible things that can make their anxiety worse. For instance, having a visual schedule or chart allows both parents and kids to make the day more predictable, which increases a feeling of security. You can also use calming anxiety activities such as anxiety thermometer worksheets or using a checklist to make things more tangible.
4. Don’t reinforce your child’s fears
Parenting a child with anxiety involves taking care not to reinforce the child’s fears. Avoid suggesting, whether with your tone of voice or body language, that perhaps your child should be worried or afraid of something. This is especially important for parents or guardians who are anxious themselves. Instead, convey confidence during anxiety-proviking situations so that your child can feel less anxious. It may also give children more confidence to break down anxious thoughts so they can have more control over their fears.
5. Have positive but realistic expectations
Expectation setting is crucial to manage your child’s anxiety. However, don’t promise your child that what they fear won’t happen. Rather, it’s best to assure them that they will be able to handle it when it does happen.
One example of this is sleep anxiety in children. Kids who experience this are unable to tolerate the uncertainty of what happens after their parents leave the room when it’s time to sleep. Consistently giving them the message that they can manage with more practice and that you’ll continue to be present while they do so will give them the courage to face their anxieties.
6. 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. So for instance, if your child is nervous about going to the doctor’s appointment, don’t discuss it with them unless you really have to. It will only leave them riddled with anxiety the longer they have to ruminate and wait. It helps to have anxiety activities for kids ready to help them deal with this anticipatory period.
7. Respect your child’s feelings, but don’t empower them
It is important to validate your child’s feelings, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with them, especially if they are hurting your child in the long run. When your child is anxious about a certain situation, it will help them more if you validate how they feel and then follow it with encouragement that they can face their fears.
8. Model healthy ways of coping with anxiety
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 in a healthy way.
Children learn by watching their parents and guardians. Whenever you model coping with anxiety in a healthy manner, 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.
9. 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.
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 that are involved in your child’s life, working together can be very beneficial for you as well.
You may speak to teachers, counselors, or the parent of your child’s friend. This can come in hand especially when helping a child with separation anxiety at school. By remember that this is a team effort, helping your child battle anxiety will not feel as daunting.
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
Parenting an anxious child can be very challenging, not just for the parent or guardian, but also for the child with anxiety. 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.