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How to Help Your Child Manage Their Anxiety

Even when a child is growing up in a loving and stable family environment, they can feel fear and anxiety. As a parent, it is so difficult to watch your child struggle, and often our natural impulse is to reassure our child that everything is okay. It is often much more effective, however, to teach your child strategies for coping with their fear and anxiety, rather than having them depend on you for reassurance.

When children experience anxiety, they are experiencing real fear and the fight/flight/freeze mode that accompanies it. Even though the trigger for their anxiety (a peer issue, homework, riding the bus, trying something new) may seem like something trivial to you as an adult, their feelings are real for them and difficult to manage.

Here are 3 ways parents can help their children manage their anxiety so they may regain a sense of safety.

1. Validate Rather Than Reassure

Our natural inclination is to reassure our children by saying things like, "you are fine," "it's going to be ok," or "this isn't a big deal." Often this is well intentioned in an attempt to help them gain some perspective that the trigger is something we, as adults, consider trivial or small. Unintentionally, however, this sends a message to your child that you don't understand their feelings and/or don't value their point of view and experiences.

It is more helpful to validate their feelings instead. That doesn't mean that you encourage their feelings or stay stuck in their feeling with them, but rather that you acknowledge their feeling and really listen to why they are experiencing it.

It might go something like this: Your 9 year old is worried about taking a math test tomorrow. He starts crying and says, "I'm definitely going to fail!" In this moment, you might feel compelled to say "Of course you're not going to fail!" But this focuses on the verbal statement of what is "going to happen" and doesn't acknowledge his emotions. Instead, it would be better to say something like, "You seem so stressed out about your math test. Tell me why you think you're definitely going to fail." Now, your child has an opportunity to talk through their anxiety with you in depth, which will help both of you to better understand it and work through it.

2. Help Them Slow Their Breathing

Like adults, when children are anxious they tend to take rapid shallow breaths from the chest. Taking slower, deeper breaths from the abdomen sends a signal to their brain that they are safe and can relax.

Older children may be able to follow you as you show them slow breathing exercises. For younger children, there are some playful ways to get them to slow down and control their breathing. You can have them blow bubbles, blow into a pinwheel, imagine your fingers are birthday candles and have them slowly blow them out, teach them to whistle and simply see if they can hold their breath for three seconds as if they were swimming.

I always recommend practicing breathing exercises in calm moments. It is always easier to use a skill when you are familiar with it, especially in moments of anxiety. The more you practice breathing the "right way" with your child, the easier it will be for them to use this skill in a moment when they really need it.

3. Be Proactive

If you notice a common theme/trigger for your child's anxiety, talk to them about it proactively. Point out the theme to them to help them better understand what they are experiencing. Use a proactive conversation as an opportunity to make a plan together about how to approach their anxiety when they are feeling it. Here are some questions you might ask:

  1. How do you want me to respond when you are feeling anxious?
  2. Do you prefer to have some space or would you rather talk about it?
  3. What are a few things that help you feel calm when you are upset?
  4. What are two things that you'd like to try next time you are worried about this?

Anxiety is a part of life, but if you use these three techniques, you can help your child manage theirs. If you'd like to discuss additional parenting strategies to support your child's anxiety, please feel free to be in touch. I’d be more than happy to discuss treatment options.