Tips for supporting your anxious child
What can you do if your child is highly anxious? Afraid of new situations or separating from you? It is a bit of a fine line to walk. On the one hand, you don’t want to just push your child into scary new situations with a sink or swim approach. This may only make them more fearful and undermine their trust that you understand how they feel and will back them up when they’re frightened. On the other hand, you do need to help your child face his fears or they will only magnify in his mind. If you think back to a time you were afraid to do something – give a presentation, interview for a new job, or confront a friend – and you did it anyway, you probably felt much less afraid after it was over. As an anxious person myself, I usually find that anticipating a stressful event is worse than actually going through it. And the more times I do something I’m afraid of, the less afraid I feel.
So what to do? You want to gently help your child face her fears, gradually and step by step, with lots of support and patience. So if she’s afraid of going to birthday parties, you maybe start with going to one friend’s house to hang out, and you keep her company and provide lots of reassurance. You do this a few times, and maybe branch out to have her get together with two friends. Then you go to a small, low key party and make a plan that you will stay for 20 minutes. Try not to make fun of your child’s fears or get exasperated (although I know it can be exhausting to support your child in this way. Find opportunities to rest and take a break when you can). His fears are real to him and he is probably already embarrassed about them. Provide reassurance that your child will be okay, but without suggesting that he is unreasonable to feel the way he does. Talk through some ideas to help him feel better at the party. Will it be helpful to bring a stuffed animal or a lucky necklace? To have a secret signal that lets you know he needs to go outside for air?
If your child is anxious about the future, or about their own success, you should provide lots of reassurance. If your child is anxious about covid, for example, you can talk through all the precautions you are taking to stay safe and remind them that you have all stayed safe so far. If your child is anxious about making good grades, you can remind them of all the things they are doing to succeed. You can also help them think through, what is the worst that will happen if they make a bad grade? How will they get through it? Some kids will immediately feel reassured by this, while others will resist. It will be hard for them to believe that it could actually be ok to get a bad grade, or to be satisfied with anything less than a solemn promise they will never get covid, or never be in a car accident, or whatever their fear is. But with time and gentle repetition, the message will start to sink in. With school age children, it can also be helpful to explain that sometimes their brain makes them worry more than they need to. Explain that the situation is not as bad as their brain is making it seem. My daughters are both worriers like me, and I have had this conversation with my older one. I have told her she gets it from me (thanks a lot, Mom!) and that she and I sometimes need a little extra time or help to get a correct understanding of how bad a situation actually is. It hasn’t stopped her from being a worrier, but keeping this fact in mind does help her feel calmer in certain situations.
It is also helpful to teach anxious kids (or really, any kids) some relaxation strategies, or some mindfulness strategies. (You can find an overview of mindfulness here. The short explanation is, mindfulness means focusing on what is happening in the present moment, rather than thinking about what just happened or what you are going to do next. Mindfulness activities look similar to relaxation strategies because both involve slowing down and taking deep breaths). It is most helpful to incorporate these activities into your daily routine, ideally in a fun way. If a child gets into the habit of using relaxation strategies every day, they will be more likely to naturally turn to these when they are stressed out. Some fun activities can be blowing bubbles in slow motion, trying to blow a cotton ball across the floor, first fast and then slow, or trying deep breathing lying down with a stuffed animal on your belly. When you take a walk, talk about all the colors, sounds, and smells you both notice. Some children will be receptive to a gentle suggestion to try their relaxation strategy when they are feeling nervous, while other children will resist the suggestion in the moment. Either way, the more you make it a daily habit, the more your child will incorporate it into their own toolbox. Here is a nice website with more mindfulness games.
If you find that these things don’t help, it may be a good idea to talk with a therapist.