Parenting an anxious child comes with the constant question: “How do I push my child and be comforting and supportive?” Unfortunately, there is not yet a perfect science to parenting or treating anxiety. But helping your child face the world with bravery over succumbing to the worry monster can be achieved with consistent and compassionate coaching.
As a clinical psychologist, I am always looking for the best and most effective ways for parents to assist their child in developing healthy coping, and not encouraging anxious and avoidant behaviors. These 10 simple tips will help you and your child get through to the light at the end of the tunnel, a life where worry doesn’t win.
1. Validate your child’s emotional pain and discomfort. It may seem like your child is freaking out about "nothing" when, for example, she enters full tantrum mode to avoid being dropped off at a birthday party. But to your child, this is a tremendous deal. Think how bad it has felt in your own life when you were upset about something and someone responded to you and your pain with a sentiment such as “it is not such a big deal…you are fine.” How did you feel in that moment? We have all experienced the one-two punch of experiencing emotional pain and then beating ourselves up for having that pain. Give your child the gift of learning to recognize and acknowledge when she is experiencing emotional distress. Explaining an occurrence is not the same thing as “making an excuse.” Nonjudgmentally acknowledging when we are experiencing emotional distress is the first step in learning how to move through the unavoidable moments of suffering that are built into the human experience.
2. Educate yourself about "the body on anxiety." The discomfort children experience when they are in “anxiety mode” is real. Their brain’s fear response system (otherwise known as fight, flight, freeze) has been triggered and are now experiencing all of the physiological changes to their body that would occur in a true emergency. Their heart rate and breathing are increasing; blood flow is moving from their small muscles to their big muscles that are associated with fleeing, such as their arms and legs; and their pupils are dilating to allow them to see all potential dangers more clearly. All of these physiological changes would be quite helpful if they were in a real emergency. Thankfully, they are not in a true emergency when experiencing the false alarm of anxiety, but it feels to them like they are.
3. You can validate your child’s discomfort without buying into the “doom and gloom” predictions made by their anxious brain. Along with the physiological changes that occur when the “anxiety switch” has been flipped comes a change in thinking patterns. The world shifts from seeming predictable and safe to unpredictable and dangerous. Opportunities for failure, death and other unfortunate outcomes seem ever-present. Just because your child believes that terrible things are likely to occur does not make it true. Access your “wise mind” when your child is unable to access his.
4. Believe in the strength of your child. She cannot break. Anxiety is not dangerous and cannot hurt her, but avoiding life and age-appropriate experiences can.You don't need to shield her from life's challenges.
5. Model vulnerability. It is not only okay but powerfully healing to share with your child when you are struggling and scared. Struggling and fear are part of the human experience and she will learn it is all okay.
6. Create a family culture that nurtures taking chances and learning from mistakes over perfectionism. As an exercise, you can go around the dinner table and each take turns sharing one way you took a chance today. By highlighting meeting challenges head on you are reinforcing bravery over avoidance behaviors. This family exercise emphasizes how it is the journey of learning and experiencing life that truly matters, not the outcome of achieving or winning.
7. Teach your child how to identify when the "worry monster" has surfaced and is attempting to call the shots. It is incredibly helpful to come up with kid-friendly language to help your child make sense of his anxiety. In our first few sessions with children struggling with anxiety, we name and draw a picture of their “worry monster.” Some names my wonderful, brave little clients have come up with are: worry bully, “It,” Bob," and "Mr. Annoying," to name just a few. The function of this exercise is to assist your child in more objectively viewing her worries and fears vs. seeing the world through anxieties and fears. Once we learn how to identify when the “worry monster” has surfaced, we can next learn how to talk back and disengage from its taunts and negative predictions.
8. Pick your battles. You can't work on everything at one time. Determine the fear-based behaviors that are most negatively impacting your child and your family and create specific plans on how to address these behaviors. By trying to address everything, you will end up addressing nothing.
9. Learn to identify when your own “worry monster” has surfaced. Don't believe your own fears and worries that try to predict how much suffering your child will go through when they experience moments of anxiety. Although you may have experienced anxiety in your own life, it is no real indication of how it will go for your child. Kids are incredibly adaptable; they learn quickly that the best way past anxiety is through it. By facing one fear at a time, your child will quickly learn how brave, strong, and confident he truly is.
10. It is okay to get anxiety coaching from the sidelines. Therapy does not have to be a long-term, complicated endeavor. There is effective, empirically supported, short-term therapy available to assist your child and family when stuck and overwhelmed.