How To Parent An Anxious Child: 5 Tips To Help Your Child Beat Their Anxiety

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Anxiety…How It Changes The Rules Of Parenting

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

As a parent, your instinct is to do whatever you need to to protect your child from feeling distressed. For the most part it’s a good parenting philosophy to follow…except when it comes to anxiety.

Whether it’s a school test, a class speech, going somewhere new and unfamiliar, a visit to the dentist, or being away from mum and dad – anxious kids (like anxious adults) will want to avoid situations that make them feel anxious. The urge to avoid is so strong that any encouragement on your part to face the situation will probably be met with forceful refusals, tears, and tantrums.

Avoidance can make your child's anxiety worse longer-term

Avoidance can make your child’s anxiety worse longer-term

The level of distress your child shows at the idea of entering a feared situation is so high that it goes against your parenting instincts to push it further. Encouraging your child to do something that makes them so upset can’t be helpful right? Wrong.

Avoidance will resolve your child’s distress in the short-term, but make anxiety worse longer-term. Worse still, if your child never faces their fears they’ll never learn that they can cope and there’s the potential for them to develop anxiety in other areas as well.

Avoid avoidance. Use these tips to help your child manage their anxiety instead.

Tip #1: Help Your Child to Understand their Worries

Take the time to listen to your child’s concerns and show you’re listening by giving your child your undivided attention. As you listen try to help your child pinpoint their worry (e.g. “It sounds like you’re really upset and don’t want to go to school tomorrow. Is there something different on tomorrow at school?)

Tip #2: Help Your Child Solve Their Worry

Try to avoid jumping in with solutions or reassurance. Solutions and reassurance will help your child to feel better in the short-term, but they won’t help your child to develop skills to manage anxiety in the longer-term. Instead, help your child to identify whether there’s anything they can do to make the situation better and brainstorm ideas. For example, if your child is worried about a spelling test at school one solution might be to set aside 15 minutes each afternoon to practice spelling. Try to sit back and encourage your child to come up with their own solutions. If your child can come up with their own plan of action it will help them to feel more in control and more able to cope next time they’re anxious.

Tip #3: Avoid Avoidance

When your child feels anxious they will want to avoid whatever it is that’s making them feel this way. While avoidance will help your child to feel better in the short-term, in the longer-term it will actually worsen their anxiety.

Its tempting to avoid situations to avoid tantrums, but it's only a short-term fix

Its tempting to avoid situations to avoid tantrums, but it’s only a short-term fix

Identify what it is that your child’s trying to avoid and list all the situations related to this. For example, if your child wants to avoid being separated from you this might mean that they: try to avoid leaving you to go to school, delay going to bed to avoid being away from you, always come with you when you leave the house to run errands, or avoid sleepovers to avoid being away from you for an extended period of time. Consider how anxious your child would be if they had to face these situations and rank them from most to least anxiety provoking.

Help your child to gradually face their fear with regular practice. Practice will initially cause your child some distress, but with repeated practice your child’s anxiety should lessen because they will learn a) that the situation isn’t as scary as they thought, and b) that they can cope. It’s important for your child to learn these lessons for themselves through experience and not just from you telling them. Experience is a far more powerful teacher.

Start with the least anxiety provoking step first, and practice this step once or twice per week until it’s almost boring. When you’ve practiced enough, move on to the next step and repeat. It’s important that your child experiences success at each step before moving on.

Tip #4: Develop a List of Rewards

Facing fears can be hard and while you as a parent might be able to see the future benefits of not relying on avoidance to cope, your child will probably see things differently. Ask your child to come up with a list of rewards that would help them to feel good about practicing facing their fears. For rewards to be effective they have to be meaningful (i.e. something your child actually wants) and awarded as soon as possible after the step is completed. If the reward can’t be given immediately (e.g. a movie with a friend on the weekend) give your child a voucher that they can “cash in”.

Rewards should reflect the degree of difficulty of the task – smaller rewards should be given for smaller steps, and larger rewards for later more challenging steps. Rewards might include: picking what’s for dinner, going to the movies, having a friend over, special time with mum/dad, extra TV time, staying up 15 minutes later than usual, etc.

Tip #5: Model Bravery

If you’re apprehensive, your child might misinterpret your anxiety to mean that the situation is dangerous or that you don’t believe they can cope. When you’re helping your child to practice facing their fears, try to remain calm and confident. This will show your child that you have confidence in them which will in turn help them to have confidence in themselves.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


 

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