How do you help your child when they’re struggling with anxiety? Do you make friends with the monster in the closet or pretend he doesn’t exist?
It’s so hard to see our kids feeling afraid or anxious, so we often try to find a quick fix — a bandaid approach to our child’s anxiety. We say things like “Don’t be scared,” or “There’s nothing to worry about,” or my personal favorite, “You’re fine.”
But the problem is that it doesn’t usually help decrease your child’s anxiety. In fact, it can sometimes make it worse.
3 Simple Steps to Help Your Child When They Are Feeling Anxious
There’s a lot of anxiety swirling in our world right now. For adults and for kids, especially with figuring out how to do life in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was a kid, so I’m no stranger to feeling this way.
I still struggle with anxiety. It just looks a little different now. But, while I’ve learned a lot about managing my own anxiety, now as a mom of an anxious child, I’ve had to learn all over again how to manage anxiety, but now from a parental perspective.
It’s easy to feel helpless when your child is struggling with anxiety.
The good news is, there are a few simple steps you can take to help both of you: Connect, Inspect, and Re-Direct.
Here are two quick actions to take before helping your child with anxiety.
- Recognize what anxiety looks like for your child. Help them recognize the signs too. Kids sometimes express anxiety in different ways than adults. They might not be able to tell you they’re struggling, because it looks like a lot of different things.
-change of appetite (under or over eating)
-nail biting/chewing/sucking thumb
-afraid to be alone/leave the house
These are just a few examples. It’s important to recognize that anxiety comes in a lot of physical manifestations and get to know what it looks like for your child specifically.
Disclaimer: —> I am not a medical professional, and I want to encourage you – don’t be afraid to get help. If your child’s anxiety is recurring or hindering them in a significant way, talk to your doctor and/or a counselor. If there are physical symptoms and you aren’t sure it’s anxiety, please consult with a physician.
- CHOOSE how you will respond in advance.
It’s easy to get frustrated with our kids because their fears seem unreasonable to us. “There’s no monster in the closet! That’s ridiculous. Just go to sleep.”
It feels ridiculous to us because we know that the only monster in that closet is the huge mound of laundry, right? Yet to our child, it feels like a very real fear.
Choose ahead of time to extend grace to your child instead of giving a quick response. They need the safety of your love and understanding.
3 Simple Steps to Help Your Child With Anxiety
When your child is feeling anxious, more than they need your advice or a solution or coping skill, they need your love. The safest place in the world, to your child, is right in the center of your love.
So the first and most powerful thing you can do is to comfort them. Kids learn from our modeling. They aren’t born with the ability to regulate their emotions or comfort themselves.
When babies are born, they need to be picked up, held and rocked to be comforted. When kids are experiencing anxiety, it can actually cause them to revert back to a younger state.
It’s so important that we connect with them first. Instead of giving advice or dismissing their emotions, comfort them. Come alongside them with a hug or invite them to climb into your lap and find safety with you.
It’s also important to acknowledge their fear and normalize it. Pretending it doesn’t exist can make it worse and can confuse your child.
When we ignore or minimize a child’s anxiety, we are inadvertently
teaching them that their emotions do not matter or cannot be trusted. Just because you may think their fear or anxiety is tiny or unjustified, that doesn’t make it any less real in your child’s life.
Everyone feels afraid sometimes. Our kids need to know that fear and anxiety are normal responses to new or unfamiliar things. We just need to learn how to address it and manage it.
Have a conversation with your kids. Let them know that God created our bodies to react that way to protect us.
If a lion or bear were to come out around us, we would need to feel afraid to be able to protect ourselves. Fear tells us to run to safety.
But sometimes we feel anxious or afraid because we don’t know what to expect or are unsure about something.
Let them know that in those times, instead of letting fear control us, we need to investigate it and inspect it.
There are two parts to your child’s brain (and to yours, for that matter): The upstairs brain & the downstairs brain – (The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson)
The primitive brain (downstairs) is where those big, emotional responses come from -the fight, flight or freeze responses.
The. sophisticated brain (upstairs) is where logic, reasoning and good decision-making take place.
When your child is overcome with fear or anxiety, they are camping out in the downstairs brain. They are incapable of applying logic or reasoning in those moments.
So the first thing we need to do is to comfort them. Once they have calmed down, then you can start to invite them to use their “upstairs brain” to choose next steps to move beyond their anxiety.
Normalize it. “We all feel scared or anxious sometimes. That’s normal. God created our bodies to do that in order to protect us. BUT, sometimes we feel anxious or afraid when we just don’t know what to expect or when we feel out of control.”
Brainstorm potential UNDERLYING causes of the anxiety.
There are so many things that can cause or at least contribute to a child’s anxiety. So one of the best places to start is by addressing these potential causes and seeing if that helps.
Questions to ask:
-Does my child have any physical needs right now? Are they tired? hungry?
-Does my child have emotional needs right now? Are they feeling hurt, frustrated, insecure, lonely?
-Has my child experienced some form of loss or trauma that could be contributing to this? Major transition, trauma, divorce, death/loss of pet, friend or family member, moving, car accident, new school, back-to-school anxiety, bullying, etc.?
-Could my child have an underlying medical issue?
-Is my child’s diet potentially contributing to anxiety? Sugar, caffeine, etc.
Help your child inspect their own anxiety.
Don’t just ask what they’re anxious about; dive a little deeper into the specifics.
—>Imagine you lose your dog. You’re frantic! You start panicking, so you call the police. “Help! I lost my dog!” What would they say? “Okay, We’ll find it.” They hang up. Later that day, they call back: “We found your dog! Come pick it up.” You go to pick it up, but it’s not your dog at all. Now you’re still frantic, but also frustrated.
What would really happen is they would ask you a series of important questions. “What’s your name? Where do you live? What breed of dog is it? When did you see it last? Is there anyone else who may have seen it?”
The more specific information you’re able to give them, the more likely they are to find your dog and make sure it’s the RIGHT dog.
When we give our kids a one-size-fits all response to their anxiety, it’s like dropping the wrong dog off at their house. It’s just not what they need.
Instead, when you can work together with your child to find out what specifically is causing their anxiety, THEN you can help give them the specific tools and resources to deal with that anxiety.
Maybe your child is afraid of going back to school. What SPECIFICALLY are they afraid of? Is it getting sick? Wearing a mask? Seeing their friends after so long? Being away from you after being with you for so long? The more SPECIFIC you can get with your child, the more effective you’ll be at helping them address that anxiety.
Help your child put words to it.
I DON’T mean re-direct as in ignore the anxiety and direct your child to a different activity. No, I mean help them re-direct their anxious energy into helpful action.
When I was 10 years old, I went to Cedar Point (an amusement park) with my friends. There was only one problem: I was deathly afraid of any type of ride with a hill.
What did my amazing friends do with this information? They tricked me into going on an “innocent” boat ride.
But when our boat rounded the corner and I saw the enormous hill looming ahead of us, I panicked.
Beyond all logic, I tried to get out of the boat that was now 100 feet off the ground. My friends pulled me down and told me to hold onto the friend in front of me as tightly as I could. So, I re-directed my nervous energy into hugging my friend and, before I knew it, we were down the hill. And, wouldn’t you know it, I loved it.
For many situations, ACTION is the antidote to fear. So we need to give our children something to DO when they’re feeling anxious to help relieve the anxiety.
TWO TYPES OF ACTION:
Help your child walk through the thing that’s causing anxiety in their mind ahead of time. Let them “explore” it and practice it. The more comfortable they get with the idea of that thing (going back to school, riding the roller coaster, whatever it is), the less anxiety they will experience and the more powerful they will feel.
One of the best things you can do to help your child is to give them coping skills or some sort of action they can take when they are feeling anxious.
—>Practice some coping skills with your child.
EXAMPLE: You sign your child up for ballet class and they refuse to go.
Instead of saying: “You have to go. You don’t need to be scared, it will be fun.”
Try saying: “It sounds like you’re feeling anxious about going. I understand. There are lots of things that I have done in my life that made me feel anxious the first time I did them too. [Use an example if you can.]
Let’s talk about what it is you’re most afraid of. Are you anxious about making friends? Or what the teacher will think? Or what the class will be like?”
- Help your child identify what they are specifically nervous about [Such as them simply not knowing what to expect or who will be there.]
Response: “Okay, well it sounds like you’re feeling anxious because this is your first time and you’re not sure what it will be like. So let’s talk about it!”
2. Then help your child take MENTAL ACTION. Talk with your child about the details….where will the class be held, what will they wear, who is the teacher, how many students will be in the class, will you (parent) be present or wait outside? etc.
As you talk through these elements, your child’s reaction and questions will help you get a better picture of their fear so you can help talk them through it.
3. If they are still struggling with anxiety after familiarizing it, offer some scaffolding. Scaffolding is when you provide some additional support or “structure” for your child until they feel comfortable.
“What if I call the teacher and ask if we can observe a class?” or “Let’s see if I can come in for the first session with you until you feel comfortable.”
4. Help your child identify PHYSICAL ACTIONS they can take. “Okay, when you’re in class, what can you do if you feel anxious? Let’s come up with some ideas together.”
-Find a friend and sit with them.
-Sit by the teacher.
-Wear a bracelet that reminds you to be brave.
-Plan B: I’ll be sitting outside if you need me
5. Follow up and celebrate success. When the anxiety is so dramatic, we often forget to celebrate the success. But debriefing with your child AFTER a situation that had them feeling anxious will help empower them and make it easier to face their anxiety in the future.
—>AFTER the boat ride that scared me half to death, my friends celebrated with me that I did it! Then they asked me how it was and you know what? I wanted to do it again!
—>Make sure you’re not celebrating a lack of anxiety, but instead celebrating that your child took action DESPITE the anxiety.
—>You have a powerful opportunity to walk with your child through anxiety and use it as a learning experience NOW while they are young so that, when they’re older, they are better equipped to handle it on their own.
Just remember to Connect, Inspect, and Re-direct.
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