By Sara Berlin, LMSW
School Social Worker (Cherry Lane)
Fear and anxiety are a normal and expected part of being a kid: Hiding behind a caregiver when meeting a new person for the first time. Asking for one more story or to be tucked in one more time, as to avoid going to bed on their own. This is all very familiar to us.
Anxiety on its own is a normal (and – yes – even adaptive!) part of life, anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent and excessive fear, which causes significant distress or impairment in everyday life. To help your child, it’s important to understand their concerns and assist them in developing coping skills to manage their anxiety effectively. Below are some tips to understand and assist your child in learning coping skills:
When anxious kids act like anxious kids, we have to be empathetic and understand that at times irritability and frustration come along with anxiety. As parents, it’s not easy to always have the same amount of patience and understanding when our child is constantly anxious. Know that your child is not intentionally choosing to make your life difficult by being clingy or whiney. Additionally, children with anxiety are not trying to be “troublesome” kids. Instead, most – if not, all – of these children would do anything to stop being so anxious and “difficult!”
If you know your child is anxious about going to sleepovers or birthday parties- avoiding these gatherings will reinforce to your child that they can avoid situations that make them feel anxious (making it a cyclical cycle). As a parent, we need to model brave behavior by avoiding avoidance.
Avoid Excessive Reassurance
As parents, naturally it is hard to see our children in distress and often times we want to “save” them when they are feeling or acting anxious. By doing so we engage in reassurance. “I promise you will be ok, nothing bad will happen to you”. When we don’t teach our children to face their fears and self-soothe, we “drown them in our chicken soup.” Our natural temptation is to provide the reassurance they are so desperately asking for. Teaching our children how to self-regulate and manage their anxiety without parental help is key to building independence and feeling more in control of their fears. This comes along with teaching our children to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Giving your child praise when they exercise brave behavior (like going to bed on their own or not asking for excessive reassurance) even when they are noticeably anxious can be extremely helpful in reinforcing continued brave behavior. So when you see your child struggling to manage their anxiety in spite of their fear, make sure to praise them!
Don’t Underestimate The Value of Validation
In addition to praise, it can be helpful to validate your child’s anxiety by noting how difficult their experiences are, while incorporating praise. For example, you can say, “I know that speaking up in class was really hard for you today and I am proud that you are practicing your bravery.”
Provide Love and Safety
A secure attachment and strong social support can be a huge protective factor for all children, especially those experiencing anxiety disorders. Be patient and positive as your child finds new ways to cope. Finally, continue to provide a warm, safe and loving environment for your children!
Know When to Seek Help
Childhood anxiety disorders can be treated by mental health professionals. A therapist can help assess, diagnose, and treat the anxiety disorder and help you create a plan to help your child cope. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) is often used to treat childhood anxiety disorders and helps children learn new ways to think and behave in anxiety-provoking situations, and can help them learn techniques to manage and tolerate their anxiety. If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety, know when to seek help from a trained professional who can help you and your child.