Most parents would move mountains to ease their child’s pain. Parents of kids with anxiety would move planets and stars as well. It hurts to watch your child worry over situations that, frankly, don’t seem that scary. Here’s the thing: To your child’s mind, these situations are genuinely threatening. Even perceived threats can create a real nervous system response. We call this response anxiety and I know it well. Here are 8 ideas that you can try right away.
- Stop Reassuring Your Child. Your child worries. You know there is nothing to worry about, so you say, “Trust me. There’s nothing to worry about.” Done and done, right? We all wish it were that simple. Your anxious child desperately wants to listen to you, but the brain won’t let it happen. When the emotional part of the brain takes over, it is really hard for your child to think clearly, use logic or even remember how to complete basic tasks. What should you do instead of trying to rationalize the worry away?
- Freeze — pause and take some deep breaths with your child. Deep breathing can help reverse the nervous system response.
- Empathize — anxiety is scary. Your child wants to know that you get it.
- Evaluate — once your child is calm, it’s time to figure out possible solutions.
- Let Go – Let go of your guilt; you are an amazing parent giving your child the tools to manage their worry.
- Highlight Why Worrying is Good. Remember, anxiety is tough enough without a child believing that something is wrong with them. Many kids even develop anxiety about having anxiety. Teach your kids that worrying does, in fact, have a purpose. Worry is a protection mechanism. Worry rings an alarm in our system and helps us survive danger. Teach your kids that worry is perfectly normal, it can help protect us, and everyone experiences it from time to time. Sometimes our system sets off false alarms, but this type of worry (anxiety) can be put in check with some simple techniques.
- Bring Your Child’s Worry to Life. As you probably know, ignoring anxiety doesn’t help. However, bringing worry to life and talking about it like a real person can. Create a worry character for your child. You can use a stuffed animal and role-play at home. Personifying worry or creating a character has multiple benefits. It can help demystify the scary physical response children experience when they worry. It can reactivate the logical brain, and it’s a tool your children can use on their own at any time.
- Teach Your Child to Be a Thought Detective. Remember, worry is the brain’s way of protecting us from danger. To make sure we’re really paying attention, the mind often exaggerates the object of the worry (e.g., mistaking a stick for a snake). You may have heard that teaching your children to think more positively could calm their worries. However, the best remedy for distorted thinking is not positive thinking; it’s accurate thinking.
- Catch your thoughts: Imagine every thought you have floats above your head in a bubble (like what you see in comic strips). Now, catch one of the worried thoughts like “No one at school likes me.”
- Collect evidence: Next, collect evidence to support or negate this thought. Teach your child not to make judgments about what to worry about based only on feelings. Feelings are not facts. (Supporting evidence: “I had a hard time finding someone to sit with at lunch yesterday.” Negating evidence: “Lucy and I do homework together—she’s a friend of mine.”)
- Challenge your thoughts: The best (and most entertaining) way to do this is to teach your children to have a debate within themselves.
- Help Them Go from What If to What Is. Mentally we often spend a lot of time in the future. For someone experiencing anxiety, this type of mental time travel can exacerbate the worry. A typical time traveler asks what-if questions: “What if I can’t open my locker and I miss class?” “What if Lucy doesn’t talk to me today?” Coming back to the present can help alleviate this tendency. One effective method of doing this is to practice mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness brings a child from what if to what is. To do this, help your child simply focus on their breath for a few minutes.
- Avoid Avoiding Everything that Causes Anxiety. Do your children want to avoid social events, dogs, school, planes or basically any situation that causes anxiety? As a parent, do you help them do so? Of course! This is natural. The flight part of the flight-fight-freeze response urges your children to escape the threatening situation. Unfortunately, in the long run, avoidance makes anxiety worse. So what’s the alternative? Try a method called laddering. Kids who are able to manage their worry break it down into manageable chunks. Laddering uses this chunking concept and gradual exposure to reach a goal. Let’s say your child is afraid of sitting on the swings at the park. Instead of avoiding this activity, create mini-goals to get closer to the bigger goal (e.g., go to the edge of the park, then walk into the park, go to the swings, and, finally, get on a swing). You can use each step until the exposure becomes too easy; that’s when you know it’s time to move to the next rung on the ladder.
- Help Them Work Through a Checklist. When kids face anxiety its hard to think clearly. Why not create a checklist so they have a step-by-step method to calm down? What do you want them to do when they first feel anxiety coming on? If breathing helps them, then the first step is to pause and breathe. Next, they can evaluate the situation. In the end, you can create a hard copy checklist for your child to refer to when they feel anxious.
- Practice Self-Compassion. Watching your child suffer from anxiety can be painful, frustrating, and confusing. There is not one parent that hasn’t wondered at one time or another if they are the cause of their child’s anxiety. Here’s the thing, research shows that anxiety is often the result of multiple factors (i.e., genes, brain physiology, temperament, environmental factors, past traumatic events, etc.). Please keep in mind, you did not cause your child’s anxiety, but you can help them overcome it.
Toward the goal of a healthier life for the whole family, practice self-compassion. Remember, you’re not alone, and you’re not to blame. It’s time to let go of debilitating self-criticism and forgive yourself. Love yourself. You are your child’s champion.