I work with a lot of anxious little kiddos in my practice. I’ve recently noticed that anxiety is on the up – for sure. You’ve probably noticed too. There is a lot of speculation around the ‘why’:
- Are kids more anxious these days?
- Or are we simply more aware of their anxiety?
- Are we over-diagnosing them because we are more anxious about the possibility of them being anxious?
- Are we making them more anxious by being more anxious ourselves?
I think it’s a combination – what do you think? I’d love to hear!
Helpful Tips for Parents with Anxious Children
Meanwhile, here are tips I routinely share with parents to try out with their anxious little people:
While it’s tempting to avoid a shopping mall that seems to trigger your child’s anxiety, there is a possibility (probability) that this will simply teach your child that you agree that anxiety should be avoided, and so shopping malls should be avoided – even if that’s super inconvenient. So while you are well intended of course, the problem with avoidance is that the anxiety gains a higher priority than calmness and convenience in your lives. No fair!
This might sound counterintuitive and unhelpful, but if we have elimination of anxiety as a goal, we will never achieve that goal. And this will produce even more anxiety. Anxiety is a normal reaction to danger, we cannot and should not try to eliminate it from your lives completely! Functioning despite anxious feelings is an achievable goal, as is reducing the intensity of those feelings.
Set realistic goals:
One very effective way to reduce anxiety is to reduce expectations. I don’t mean expect ‘failure’ but I do mean encourage your child to take part, rather than to win; to enjoy rather than to excel; to know that ‘losing’ is normal and manageable. Kids need to know that they can make mistakes and that they can learn from them – it’s the essence of resilience which I spoke about here before.
Identify and acknowledge feelings:
Another way to reduce anxiety is to name the feelings and thoughts associated with it. If you find that your child is feeling fear you may be tempted to distract them straight away or say “This is not scary – look I can do it! It’s perfectly safe I promise!” My suggestion is before that step, go in with “What are you scared might happen? How might that happen? How likely do you think that is? (for older kids). This will teach the, that you are willing and able to look fear in the eye and see what ti’s really made of. In doing this, fears often shrink and lose power. Magic!
A great next question then is “What will we (for very anxious, because you are showing them you’ll help them at first) or what will you (for less so, because you’re showing them that you believe they are capable of managing this by themselves) do if that happens? It’s very empowering for a kid to know that they can come up with a solution – even if in truth it is guided by you, or even if it’s seemingly nonsensical to grown-up ears! It’s the process, and the belief that matters.
If your child is barked at by a dog, it’s easy to fall into the reinforcement trap the next time you encounter a dog, any dog. We can say things like – “Uh oh – there’s a dog coming – are you doing OK? Are you scared?” In this way we unintentionally give the child a reason to be scared. They may not be scared at all – but if we imply that they should be they will! Because they take their cues from us.
Manage your own anxiety:
Which brings me to my last piece – which is often the most challenging as you will know well if you suffer from anxiety yourself. With every anxious little person comes an anxious parent – naturally. It is hard, really hard to see a little person worry and become subsumed by fear. I don’t think anyone is immune to that. And that triggers anxiety of course. The other piece that we now know is that anxiety, as a behaviour, can be learned. And learned really well, as easily, and as subtly as a first language.
And so, if we are anxious and model anxiety (unwittingly!!), our child will learn that this is how to respond to the world. This is normal and happens all the time AND it can be changed. I have learned that the most helpful thing we can do around children who are anxious, is to check if we are anxious and to work on that ourselves. With compassion, without judgement. “Modelling” this will look like “Oooh, I’ve never done this before and I’m a little nervous but hey! I’ll give it a go – wish me luck!” or “Ooops! I made a mistake there, I’ll give it another go later ya?”
I don’t want anyone reading this to use it as an excuse to take out the ‘critical parent’ stick and beat themselves with it thinking “Oh NOOOO it’s all my fault!!” No, instead, give yourself a ‘loving parent’ hug, and promise yourself that you will nurture your own anxiety away either by teaching yourself techniques like the ones I’ve listed, or seeking help from a professional. It doesn’t mean you’ll be deep in naval gazing therapy for life (unless you want to be of course!) but it does mean you are giving yourself the opportunity to live a fuller happier and calmer life.
How good does that sound??