We tend to talk quite openly about our own anxieties as parents, how juggling so many responsibilities and expectations can leave us wide awake with worry in the middle of the night. Childhood, however, should be a time of lighthearted fun, and it can be hard to know how to react when your child is the one whose worries seem to spiral.
Child anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, but there are a few main types: Separation anxiety is when your child doesn’t want you to leave them at daycare, school, with a babysitter, or in a similar situation. Social anxiety, in which a child is nervous about being around others, could manifest itself in a reluctance to go to school. A deep fear of one specific thing, such as dogs or doctors, is called a phobia, and those tend to be easy to identify — perhaps your child runs and tries to hide every time he sees a dog or when he realizes you’re going to l doctor’s office. Children with general anxiety may or may not be able to express their fears, which might be about bad things happening or the future.
As with adults, anxiety often presents itself in children as physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, headache, fatigue, or trouble sleeping.
When children are struggling with anxiety, we want to offer comfort and support, and at the same time we want them to know that we believe we can face their fears. It can be tricky to find a way to balance these two approaches.
If your child suffers from persistent anxiety, here are some things experts suggest keeping in mind.
Recognize that your child’s anxiety is real.
In generations past, a child struggling with anxiety was likely told to “get over it” or “pull it out” by a parent, who may have sincerely believed they were imparting an essential life lesson. Culturally things have changed. We now know that trauma doesn’t go away if you don’t talk about it, and that ignoring strong emotions probably isn’t the best way to deal with them.
Psychologist Cara Goodwin, who goes by the Parenting Translator on Instagram, told HuffPost: “First, it’s important for parents to validate and empathize with the anxiety. Rather than brushing aside your child’s fear or explaining why it’s irrational, you recognize that his anxiety is “real” and that it must be difficult to feel that way.
Talking to your child like this about his anxiety won’t make him more anxious. Ask them to tell you what they are concerned about and listen carefully to their response before jumping in with suggestions to fix the problem.
Let them know that you believe you can handle whatever situation makes them anxious.
After acknowledging what they’re feeling, instead of helping them walk away from the situation (for example, letting them stay home from school if they’re feeling eager to get there), tell them that you feel they have the ability to handle it and make it through a difficult situation.
Goodwin suggests saying something like, “I can see this making you really nervous, but I know you can handle it.”
Recognize the difference between normal fears and problematic anxiety.
The wave of fear we feel when we perceive a threat and the adrenaline that gives us a rush of energy to run away from it evolved in humans to keep us alive. But sometimes this system also kicks in when faced with something benign, like a neighbor’s dog or a party full of kids.
“Our nervous system is hardwired to take action and help us stay safe from harm. This often helps us do productive things to help achieve goals and aspirations, but sometimes it causes anxiety,” Anne Marie Albano, a psychologist and clinical director of the New York-Presbyterian’s Center for Youth Mental Health, told HuffPost.
Some separation anxiety is normal, and it’s also common for children to be afraid of things like loud noises and the dark. In most cases, “within a week or two, children should be able to adjust and settle into a new routine and activity without the same fear or anxiety,” Albano said.
To understand if your child’s concerns have gone beyond what you expected, you can ask the following questions:
- Is the anxiety reasonable given the situation or is it excessive?
- Are their fears calmed by your reassurance and support?
- Does anxiety become uncontrollable?
- Can I handle the ups and downs of daily challenges?
If the anxiety is too much for your child to handle, even with your support, and it’s interfering in their life, it’s time to seek the support of a mental health professional.
Involve them in troubleshooting.
Albano recommends asking your child, “What do you want to do to handle this situation?” Again, he lets them communicate their ideas and don’t jump right in with yours. If you encourage them to keep talking, perhaps weighing the pros and cons of different possibilities, they may be able to come up with a solid plan without much input from you. You can offer support by expressing approval of the plan they have chosen.
“Remind your child of similar situations he has handled in the past,” Albano suggested.
Enabling your child to deal with uncertainty is a necessary part of growing up. “Many situations…even if they’re uncomfortable for a while, aren’t harmful. Most of these situations cause your child to learn and develop coping and problem-solving skills that will serve them throughout their lives,” Albano said.
He suggested looking at yourself as your child’s advisor rather than someone who clears the path of all obstacles for them.
Help them take it one step at a time.
Of course, you’ll need to meet your child where they are and help them take one step at a time from point A to point B. If your child is afraid of water, you wouldn’t just throw them in the pool and watch them figure out how to swim. In the beginning, you will go up with them and help them learn the necessary skills.
“Parents should work with their children to take ‘baby steps’ towards the goal of facing their fears. Parents should therefore pay close attention to and praise any child’s ‘brave behavior’,” Goodwin said.
Be sure to offer this praise regardless of the outcome.
“Focus on your child’s efforts to handle a situation that scares him and not on the outcome,” Albano said. Even though they fell, he highlights the fact that they got back on their bikes.
Don’t help your child avoid triggers — this can make his anxiety worse.
If your child is going to learn to cope with his anxiety, you can’t always step in and manage it for him.
“We know that avoiding anxiety-provoking events only makes the anxiety worse and keeps the child dependent on parents coping so they don’t learn skills to deal with their anxiety independently,” Goodwin said. Parents may, for example, speak up for a shy child, answer repetitive questions from a worried child, or avoid situations they think might trigger a child’s anxiety.
When you help your kids avoid a situation that makes them anxious, “reinforce the idea that the situation is something they should be afraid of (since their parents seem worried too) and let the kids know they can’t handle it theirs,” Goodwin said.
Don’t hesitate to ask for professional help.
As parents, we can provide much of the emotional support our children need by asking the right questions and acting as a sounding board when they try to figure things out. But we are not equipped to handle everything they bring us on our own.
“Parents can certainly help their children cope with anxiety,” Goodwin said, but “they should seek professional help when their child’s anxiety appears to be interfering with important functions such as sleep, nutrition, school.” or activities they used to enjoy, when their child’s anxiety seems to get worse, or when they have been exposed to a traumatic situation that causes anxiety.
“Therapy and medications are very effective for treating childhood anxiety,” Goodwin continued. “In particular, a type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps most children with anxiety show significant improvement in symptoms.”
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