Are you looking for strategies to help your child with anxiety? Since you know your child best, you’ll also be able to put some strategies in place while you’re working with your child’s medical team, therapists, and possibly medication to make your child’s day-to-day activities easier to manage.
On the one hand, you’ll want to ease their burden and help avoid some of the triggers that make your child’s anxiety worse. On the other hand, you’ll also want to help your child learn to navigate difficult situations so he or she can manage their anxiety on their own.
Here are some strategies that you can implement to help your child with anxiety.
Managing your child’s anxiety will take time
The best strategy to help an anxious child is patience. As parents, it is important to remember that nothing worthwhile happens overnight. Rearing children and the rewards that come with it are no exception. When it comes to coping with anxiety, you and your child will adapt and learn to manage their anxiety, but it will take time.
Another strategy is to build your child’s confidence by creating opportunities for small victories or steps forward. Suppose your child gets anxious in large social gatherings such as birthday parties. In that case, begin with a playdate in your home with one other child. Preferably a child who is likely to attend the upcoming party so that there’s a familiar face for your child to look for once they arrive at the large group event. Then arrange another playdate with 2-3 children, again ones who will likely attend the party at a playground, and so forth. With each playdate, just keep increasing the number of children and noise level involved.
Also, remember to let your child talk about how they feel and why they feel that way. For younger children, you might have to ask some leading questions to get to the “why.” If you can get to the reason(s) they’re feeling anxious, then you may be able to instruct them age-appropriately how what we think can affect the way we feel and what we do. You might have to seek the help of a trained therapist on how to do this.
Above all, never let your child hide from their fears. Fears not faced become stronger; reduce that “giant” by lovingly making them face the source of their fear. When my children were little and learning to ride tricycles and scooters, they got dumped off often. Initially, they were apprehensive about getting back on, but I encouraged them to do it. I even said to them, “You need to face your fear.”
Practice strategies when you’re calm
There are lots of strategies to help an anxious child. Some kids do well with breathing exercises or relaxation techniques. Positive self-talk is another great one, as is imagining you have a big shield on that protects you. These worked for us, but only because we practiced them when we were all calm, and we did them until we could do them automatically.
This helped when the anxiety monster reared its ugly head and we just chose the correct strategy to use at that time. That said, there are some anxiety days where nothing works, and you just have to put your head down and survive the attack.
Implement strategies depending on age
Together with therapeutic intervention, there are many ways to help your anxious toddler:
- Acknowledge their fear: Tell your child that you recognize their fear and understand their concerns.
- Talk about it: Help your child find the words to describe what they are frightened of.
- Practice being apart: Play a game where you leave a room while your toddler waits for you to return. You can use a timer or clock and increase the separation time as your child becomes more comfortable. Sometimes let your child be the one who leaves.
- Do not force them: A fearful child will become resistant when forced. Allow your child’s developing autonomy to dictate what they are comfortable doing. Gentle encouragement is fine, but insistence may have a negative consequence.
- Be imaginative:
- Tell a story in which your child manages to overcome their fear.
- Play a game to introduce them to a new place or idea.
- Overcome their fears in small steps by providing distractions.
- Ease their fears: This can be as simple as making a “no monsters allowed” sign for their room, buying a nightlight, discussing their bad dreams (in the morning), or avoiding TV or other stimulating activities before bedtime and reading a story instead.
- Prepare: Talk to your child in advance. If you are to go somewhere new or do something different, some advance planning can ensure that the experience is not as stressful as when it’s unexpected.
For older kids, it is crucial to allow your child to develop their own coping skills. It is your instinct to protect them, but it is necessary for them to learn to manage on their own. The following can be useful ways of dealing with anxiety:
- Breathing and relaxation techniques: Deep breathing is calming and centering. Together with conscious muscles, relaxation can help your child stay calm.
- Writing: Journaling and creative writing can be great outlets for anxiety. Writing allows your child to vent their anxious thoughts and feelings. You can also encourage them to express positive thoughts and feelings to balance the anxious or negative ones.
- Self-talk: Being able to talk to yourself when anxious can be a great tool. Saying “NO” to overwhelming or anxiety-provoking thoughts can prevent anxiety from escalating. Younger children may find it easier to imagine their anxiety as a third person or character, e.g., a fuzzy red animal or a jumpy imaginary creature.
- Support buddy: Whether it’s their therapist, you, a family friend, or teacher, it is reassuring for a child to know that someone is available to listen when their anxiety is an issue. Create time in the day to discuss anything that may be causing anxiety.
- Be honest: If something is going to be scary or different, make sure your child knows this in advance. Talk about their concerns and allay their fears.
How to help your anxious child get through daily activities
You may already be working with doctors and therapists to help your child with their anxiety. What else can you put in place to help him or her with their daily activities?
Biofeedback is one strategy that you both can use to keep anxiety under control. Your child can learn to recognize symptoms such as rapid breathing, increased heart rate, upset stomach, and sweating. Then they can begin to focus their breathing on calming all of their body’s systems.
If your child is old enough to express language, you can begin to talk through anxious feelings at their level. What is it that they are worrying about? What are other positive outcomes that could happen instead of the negative outcomes they are afraid of? And what can they do to make this happen?
Another strategy is to know what your child needs to know. Do they do better with shots from the pediatrician if they know about them ahead of time? Or will that give them more reason to be anxious? Know your child and give them what they need.
Practice. Use social stories and role modeling to help your child practice what to do in situations that cause anxiety. Just like studying for a test, help them “study” for anxious situations.
Lastly, offer plenty of empathy and affection. Being told to calm down, stop worrying, or not stress doesn’t usually work with a child with anxiety. But letting them know you care, you understand, and you are there for them will go a long way towards helping them cope.