It can be really upsetting as a parent, to see the struggles of your child with anxiety.
A lot of parents want to help their child get rid of their anxiety, but are unsure what could be beneficial and what could exacerbate their anxiety.
Sometimes protecting your child from their worries and fears can be unhelpful, even though you had good intentions and your heart was in the right place.
Adapting a New Perspective on Anxiety
I think the animated children’s movie, ‘Inside Out’, offers great insight to help with understanding childhood anxiety.
The main characters in the film are the emotions in the Riley’s brain: Joy; Disgust; Sadness; Fear; and Anger. After Riley has a traumatic experience moving to a different city, the stress brings the character Sadness forefront. The other characters try to then eliminate all sad feelings. Through the duration of the film, the characters realise that all emotions are helpful in the right proportion, and that sheltering your child from sadness can be unhelpful. This links to children’s anxiety and how we can help our children. No parent wants to see their child upset, however anxiety, fears and worries are a normal part of life, it is only when it is out of proportion that it becomes unhelpful.
Ideas on How to Help Your Child with Anxiety
Below are some tips and ideas, if you want to help your child with anxiety.
Decrease Avoidance Behaviours: If your child is anxious and you allow them to avoid the stimuli, it will help them feel better in the short term.
However, this isn’t helpful long term. This is because your child can adapt avoidance behaviours as a coping mechanism for anxiety. However, by encouraging your child to face the trigger, it can help teach your child how to problem solve, gain confidence, responsibility and self-esteem, and learn how to manage their anxiety instead of defaulting to avoidance behaviours.
Be Realistic and Express Positive Regard: Sometimes it can be hard to fully understand your child’s worries, and your child can have a different perception to you.
However, just because you don’t understand their worries or have a different perception to your child, it does not mean that your child’s worries aren’t true to them. You can’t promise that their worries won’t come true, for example, marks at school, how they will be treated at school, or falling off a bike.
However, what you can do is acknowledge their feelings, let them know that you believe in them and their ability to manage their worries. For example, if your child is concerned about a school presentation you can say something along the lines of: “I know you’re really worried about doing this presentation, but I believe that it is something you can do.” By using phrases like this, it is saying to your child that you believe in them, and it helps develop their confidence, self-esteem and independence, all while returning responsibility to the child.
Parents as Partners: It can be really helpful when parents allow free communication with their child while being empathetic, showing understanding of what your child is anxious about, and responding with positive regard and belief in your child’s abilities.
Sometimes, parents posing as partners can help your child feel secure. An example of this is, “You’re really worried about speaking in front of lots of people, I can help you practice and I think this is something you can do”; rather than “speaking in front of people is something you should be afraid of.” This can cause the child to feel like they should be afraid, nervous and may make them feel very alone.
Helpful Communication: It can be helpful when parents become mindful of using open ended, unbiased communications.
For example, if a parent asks “How was your day” or “Can you tell me about your day today?”, a child can feel like they are able to communicate their feelings freely without pressure.
Alternatively, if a parent asks “Did you have a good day?”, it is a closed question which does not invite conversation, and it also upholds an expectation and pressure that the child should have had a good day. As such, they may not feel like they are able to express other emotions.
The Journey of Managing Anxiety: Each child’s journey to managing their anxiety is unique. A good analogy that I adapt as a therapist is this: “The child is in the driver’s seat, and I’m the passenger. I will support the child throughout the drive, but the speed and direction is up to them”.
This can be helpful for parents too – to accept that the child’s journey to managing their anxiety is on the child’s timeline, rather than theirs. This removes external pressure and expectation.
Instead, try expressing your appreciation of their efforts to work on their worries. This can help your child feel supported and reinforce that you believe in them.
Modelling Behaviours: Kiddos take in huge amounts of information and watch how other people manage their worries and stresses. A way you can help your child cope with their anxiety is by modelling helpful managing techniques. Your child will learn from how you react to situations, and start to apply it to themselves.
Quality Time Cope Strategies: A couple of fun activities that you and your child can do together that can help manage their anxieties and bring them back to the ‘here and now’ include:
- Meditation, deep breathing, relaxation. A good app that I recommend to my clients is ‘Smiling Minds’.
- 5 Senses. Invite your child to find: 5 things they can see; 4 things they can feel; 3 things that they can hear; 2 things they can smell; and 1 thing they can taste. This is another technique that brings the child back to the ‘here and now’.
- Invite your child to write down their worries. You could create a worry box together, and put the worry in the box. This helps externalise the worry, and can prevent the child adapting the belief that the worry is a part of who they are.
- Yoga or stretching is another fun activity that can help your child come back to the ‘here and now’. When we are stressed, our body can tense up, but by stretching and focusing on our muscles, it can release tension and help us to feel better.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.