Everyone experiences anxiety, worries, and fears to some degree. It’s part of life and helps keep us safe. Healthy worrying helps alert us to things that could be dangerous and can guide good decision making. Some children, though, experience heightened anxiety that causes them to have intense and frequent worries about more things. Their worry becomes more harmful than productive.
If you have an anxious child, understand that you are not alone! Research shows that as many as 20% of children will show symptoms of anxiety that cause disruption in their daily lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
There are not many things that feel more stressful than seeing your child worry. Here are six tips for parents for helping your anxious child:
- Set Clear Expectations
Communicating expectations that are clear and reasonable for your child can help them set goals and learn to manage their anxiety. Be sure that the expectations for an anxious child are the same as expectations for children who do not struggle so much with anxiety (such as going to a birthday party). Skipping these types of social situations will actually make anxious thoughts worse. Understand that they may need to take things more slowly and encourage them to work through their anxious thoughts.
- It’s OK to Let Them Worry
No one ever stopped worrying because someone told them to stop worrying. Worrying serves us to some degree, especially when it comes to making decisions that are healthy and safe. Instead, give your child some time with you to talk about their worries and think of some solutions together.
- Don’t Avoid Things Just Because They Make Your Child Anxious
In the same way telling a child “don’t worry” won’t stop the worry, avoiding situations that cause them anxiety won’t help them learn to cope with their thoughts and fears. Take small steps to help desensitize your child to things that trigger their anxiety. For example, if your child gets very anxious around dogs, look at pictures of dogs in books and talk about them. Maybe visit a dog park and sit in the car, watching the dogs from a distance. When they’re ready, expose them to a therapy dog, who will be very calm. Small steps with a safety net help them work through their fears and anxious thoughts.
- Reframe Anxious Thoughts
It’s so hard to see your child having worries that are overwhelming them. Anxious children often get stuck in a cycle of “what if” and “I can’t”. They often overgeneralize and show some very rigid black and white thinking. You can help them learn to break this cycle by helping them reframe their anxious thoughts.
Reframing looks like this:
- Name a worry in your brain right now.
- What is the worry telling you?
- Let’s check if that worry is 100% right.
- Let’s take that worry and change it into a positive thought.
- Respect and Validate their Feelings without Empowering their Anxious Thoughts
Listen to your child and show them empathy. Take care not to minimize their worries. The anxiety they feel is real, overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing. Empower them by telling them “I know you’re worried. It’s OK. What can YOU do to “boss” worry instead of it “bossing” you?” “I’m here and I’m going to help you get through this.”
- Practice and Model Coping Skills With Them
It’s important for your child to have some tools ready to help them cope and manage their anxious thoughts when they occur. Different tools help in different situations, so it’s helpful for kids to have a definite list of coping strategies they can use in the moment. Some examples of coping strategies are:
- Take deep breaths (try triangle breathing, for example. Inhale 1, 2, 3, hold, 1, 2, 3, Exhale 1, 2, 3 – visualize tracing out a triangle with each step)
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Squeeze a stress ball or thinking putty
- Write down the worry, fold it up and put it in their pocket
- Talk back to the worry and reframe the thoughts
- Get help from an adult
If you have an anxious child, talk to a therapist trained in helping children with anxiety. Our therapists are highly skilled in working with children, adolescents, and families. We offer a diverse array of services to meet the needs of you and your family!
Let’s connect! Call us today to schedule an appointment.
940-222-8552 or email [email protected]
Sherry Allen, MEd, MA, LPC, EMDR
Teen Social Anxiety