Parenting Anxious Children
For many families, the start of the school year means the start of activities, socialization, and helpful structure. For others, it signals the start of anxiety – anxiety about grades, socializing, separation from loved ones, and the like. Anxiety is very common in childhood and adolescence and often does not require mental health intervention.
Common childhood fears include:
- loud noises
- costume characters
- the dark
- separation from parents
- social anxiety
However, some children may develop clinical levels of anxiety, warranting attention from a mental health provider. It is estimated that 9% of youth ages 3-17 have had an anxiety disorder. The prevalence rises as children move into adolescence.
If mild anxiety is normal and expected, how do you know when it is a problem?
It might be a problem if anxiety is…
…getting in the way of school.
…getting in the way of friendships or personal goals.
…negatively impacting their mood.
…causing significant strain on the family.
So, what can I do as a parent?
It can be highly distressing to witness a child suffering. Parents may also find it frustrating if their child cannot or will not engage in developmentally appropriate activities due to anxiety (e.g., go to school, complete chores, sit at the dinner table). This can make it hard to know what to do to help
First, identify whether the fear is based on a true threat. Use your judgment here, but if there is clearly a threat or the anxiety is in proportion to the situation, validate and support your child. And just because a fear is valid, it is not always solvable or preventable. Encourage your child to tolerate the anxiety and convey your confidence in their ability to cope.
For anxiety that seems out of proportion to the actual threat, it can be helpful to educate your child. Many young children are still learning about what is dangerous and what isn’t. However, if your child comes to you repeatedly to get reminded or reassured that they are okay, this may no longer be helpful.
Encourage approach coping. Research tells us that overtime, with repeated exposure to feared situations, anxiety will reduce. Avoidance can reinforce anxiety in the long run. Try encouraging your child to engage in activities that they are avoiding. Don’t allow them to avoid doing what is expected in your house or given their developmental level.
This may involve facing your own distress. When you see your child in distress repeatedly, it is normal to become overprotective. You may start anticipating what they fearand protect them. Parents do this because seeing your child in distress is HARD, and it can feel cruel to maintain expectations (e.g., child to sleep alone in their own bedroom) when they are visibly upset.
Just remember that overprotectiveness is NOT helpful because:
- it can promote avoidance
- it reinforces the belief that the world is dangerous
- it reinforces the belief that your child is not capable of managing distress
Positive reinforcement. Acknowledge how difficult it is to be brave and praise your child when they go outside of their comfort zone. Implementing tangible rewards can also be helpful in motivating children to face their fears.
Differential attention. Sometimes, families can get into a pattern where the anxious child gets more attention when fearful. This can inadvertently reinforce anxiety and dependency. By providing relatively more attention when children are engaging in brave or expected behavior, you can help to reverse this pattern.
Modeling. Children learn by watching you, so keep an eye on what you are teaching them through your actions. When you can, demonstrate bravery and willingness to mess up.
Scaffolding. Scaffolding can be a very useful technique when the behavior change needed is too challenging to be expected all at once. It involves providing enough support for your child to engage in a desired behavior (e.g., school) and then slowly reducing that support overtime.
If you think your child may have an anxiety disorder, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health provider. And if you need extra help, seek advice from a professional. Many providers also offer tailored education and parenting support.