Carla S. - December 15, 2019
How To Help Kids With Anxiety
When a child is afraid or in trouble, it's a parent's instinct to strap on their superhero cape and swoop in to rescue them. While that may work against bad guys on TV, it won't work against an intangible villain like anxiety.
However, you're not alone in the battle; childhood anxiety has become one of the most critical mental health struggles with widespread reach. While these feelings don't last forever in some, they can work for those who don't get the proper care and help. To help, we've compiled a list for parents about how to help kids with anxiety.
Don't dismiss your child's fears, no matter how outlandish they might seem. They are real to your kid. Instead, hear them out and validate what they're feeling. While tough love might seem like a decent choice, your kid needs an ally in their struggles, and a dismissal of their feelings will only strengthen their anxieties.
As an adult, it may be tough not to dismiss your kid's concern if they feel particularly fearful of, say, a monster in their closet or something else seemingly absurd. Still, it's something that you need to handle with a calm, rational approach.
Instead of shutting the notion down right off the bat, empathize with them. Tell your kid that you understand where their feelings come from and know that their feelings are real. Validation proves that you care and respect their anxieties. It lets them know that they don't have to bear the burden alone and can turn to you in their times of need. Only after validating their fears can you start to dispel them.
Listen & Learn
Going hand-in-hand with validating your kid's fears, you must also listen to and learn about their feelings so you can better understand them. Don't jump in right away with ideas about how to help or with judgments about their anxiety. Let them explain how they feel and the different stressors that ignite their fear. It's your job to listen intently to what they have to say and learn about the various ways in which they become stressed.
Once they've come clean about their emotions, then you can step in, validate and think of ways you can help them. You don't want to take the information you've learned and immediately throw it away. You can use what they've told you to empathize and share stories of your struggles so that they feel even more head and less alone in their battle. You can also use the information to work out a plan for how to work at dealing with their anxious feelings.
Once you've listened to and learned from your kid about their anxious feelings, you can begin to strategize how to combat them. You're not making a strategy to avoid their stressors at all costs, but rather an approach to ease the emotions that accompany their anxiety. Shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, restlessness, and nausea are just a few physical manifestations of stress.
To create an aggressive strategy, you might suggest some exercises for your kid to practice when they start to feel overwhelmed, such as deep breathing and stretching. Or, if your child feels overwhelmed by their thoughts, you can encourage them to journal or talk to a confidant such as yourself.
Journaling and talking are healthy ways of getting their ideas out of their heads. Write these exercises down for them to have in times of need; that way, they always have a remedy for anxiety spells on hand. Even just having the strategy written down and on hand may provide some comfort.
Your child's environment plays a significant role in the number of factors that induce and foster anxiety. Growing up, your child is in constant view of how you handle stress, whether in your personal or work life. That's why it's important to model healthy behavior. Don't fake it. It won't do you or your kid any good. Instead, when you're in stressful situations, especially with your child in view, think of calm, rational ways to handle it.
Kids are perceptive, and if they see healthy ways in which you cope with stress and anxiety, they're more likely to model that behavior. You can also practice your techniques with them. Explain to them what makes you anxious and tell them how you cope with it to practice the same.
However, be careful with what you preach. You want to make sure your child is learning healthy and rational coping techniques, so if your secret way of handling stress is to punch a wall, don't share that with them.
You don't want to push your kid in the deep-end without warning, but you don't want to indulge them for hours before either. Anticipation can aid your child's anxiety and let it grow. It would be best if you cut it off before it can.
You can limit pressure by shortening its development time. For example, if your child is afraid of the doctor's office, rather than telling them hours before, giving them time to stew in anticipation and anxiety, you can let them know a short while before you get in the car to go.
You don't want to cut the anticipatory period down too much, though. If you spring a doctor's visit on them halfway there in the car, you could send your kid into a panic. You want to get the timing just right with not too much or too little time before facing a stressor.
By hitting that timing sweet spot, you won't send your kid into a panic, and you won't give them time to freak out either. Afterward, you can have a conversation with your kid about how they felt and why they felt that way. That way, the discussion doesn't interfere with the actual appointment, and you can come up with a plan on how to reduce their anxiety for the next time.
Watch What You Say
There's a difference between coddling and caring, and you do not want to coddle. Don't tell your child everything is fine and always will because that sets them up for a false reality with anxiety. The truth is, anxiety can last well into adulthood and doesn't have a magic pill cure.
You also don't want to come across as if you don't respect their emotions or don't believe them. You want to be honest with them rather than dispelling any uneasy notions they have to maintain their trust and foster growth.
You also want to be careful when approaching sensitive topics. Don't ask leading questions that can induce or enhance their existing anxieties, for example, "Are you nervous for school today?" or "Are you anxious about so-and-so's party this weekend?".
Instead, ask more encouraging questions to let them speak their mind, like "How are you feeling about the party this weekend?". Open-ended questions will allow your kid to talk freely about any anxious feelings they may have without provoking anxiety.
Don't Give In To Avoidance
While it may seem like the best idea to avoid stressors at all costs, it can be quite detrimental because your child won't learn how to cope with their anxiety. Instead of avoiding stressors altogether, try taking little steps toward them.
For example, if your child is afraid of walking to the bus stop alone, don't always walk and wait with them for the bus. Instead, walk with them one day and progressively ease off. One day walk with them halfway, the next walk part of the way, and keep easing off until they're flying solo all the way there.
Just take baby steps. Let your child work and learn how to deal with their anxious feelings head-on. Facing stressors can build up a tolerance, and while it isn't an end-all cure for anxiety, it can drastically drop the stressor's effect on your kid over time.
Recognize and Reframe Irrational Worries
When contemplating whether your child has anxiety or not, it's critical to pay attention. Stress can manifest itself in many ways: irrational worries; these are worries about unlikely occurrences, either menial or massive. It's your job to recognize these worries in your kid so you can reframe them.
To reframe your kid's anxiety, break down their fear by asking more reasonable questions surrounding it. This method allows your kid to take a step back and get a better perspective on what’s worrying them and how to overcome it.
For example, If they're afraid they're going to fail a test, have them talk it through piece by piece. Ask your kid about how the fear they have could be wrong; let them explain the different ways in how they are prepared for the test.
Then, reframe the fear into a positive thought so that it's no longer "I'm afraid I'm going to fail" but "I've studied hard and am going to do my best on the test." If you prefer, you can write down the reframing steps for them. That way, if you're not around and they succumb to a bout of anxiety, they can take a look at the steps and work through it on their own.
Get Back To Basic
Sometimes, anxiety can be remedied with some basic lifestyle choices. Sleep, nutrition, exercise, and downtime play considerable roles in a healthy lifestyle and keeping the pressure at bay.
Greasy, preservative packed snacks take their toll on your body in more ways than just weight gain. Unhealthy foods can induce anxiety and affect your kid's brain in sustaining feelings of worry. Healthy alternatives and organically grown foods can counteract these tendencies.
Similarly, getting active can counteract the brain's adverse effects since exercise releases endorphins--the happy hormone. That's not to say your kid has to partake in an intense exercise routine, but getting outdoors to play and run around can do wonders for their mental health. And, of course, getting a good night's sleep and providing downtime after a long or stressful day allows the mind to decompress and re-energize for the next day.
Let Them Worry
Worrying is a naturally occurring response in the brain, without which people would continuously make reckless, uninformed decisions. Worrying has informed people for centuries, and your kid must know that. That's why you need to tell them that worrying is natural and expected, even if they feel unnatural for doing so. Telling your child otherwise won't help, like telling someone with depression to stop feeling sad--it's ineffective and insensitive.
Contrarily, let your child worry. Although, don't make them fear in solitude. Let them have a moment in the day where they can let out all of their worries. Please give them the space to share their grievances so you can then reaffirm their feelings and begin strategizing how to relieve them.
Wipe Away What Ifs
Falling into a cycle of "what ifs" is never a good thing. It heightens and continues to build anxiety with irrational fears. The only cure for the what-if spiral is mindfulness. So, if your kid falls into this cycle, you need to reign them in and bring them back to the present.
Help them understand that what happens in the future is unknowable, and making wild "what if" guesses won't do them any good at predicting it. To bring them back into the present during a what if whirlwind, ask them about what is happening now that they can control, what is happening that is good and make them happy.
Practicing mindfulness in this respect will reduce the tendency to spiral out in the future. It's also an excellent tip to teach your kid so that they know what to do if it happens again. It would be best if you also paired this technique with breathing exercises. Breathing helps reduce your heart rate and relax slightly, which is necessary when your kid starts to panic. You don't want to only reign in their thoughts, but their physical symptoms as well.