Anxiety is a normal fear response to something we perceive as a threat. For your child, a threat could be anything from his brother taking his toy to swimming lessons or starting the new school year with a new teacher. Many age-appropriate developmental tasks like potty training and learning to sleep in their own bed are perceived by the children who are facing them as threats, and provoke an anxiety response from the child.
Sometimes anxiety in children manifests as fear of specific things, such as separations from a parent or social interactions. Sometimes children develop phobias of specific things, like bees or dogs. Sometimes a child is prone to worries of all kinds. Sometimes kids react with fear to anything new, indicating that they’re in a chronic state of mild alarm.
Children are faced with new things all the time that naturally inspire a little anxiety, a little fear. So it’s normal for them to feel some worry as they approach a new thing. The goal for your child is not to feel fearless – that would be impossible, and probably evidence of poor judgment. The goal is for your child to feel that fear and face that situation and do that thing anyway. If you child can do this, then they are feeling the normal anxiety that everybody feels in the course of life, and they’re handling it in a healthy manner.
Children who are often anxious have a chronically activated alarm system. They need support to notice the thoughts that are triggering them, so they can learn to manage those thoughts. Children learn to coach themselves through anxiety-producing situations by the way you coach them, and they gain the confidence to handle new situations by having the experience of facing anxiety-inducing situations and coming through them.
How can children learn to tolerate the discomfort of facing anxiety-inducing events? Your child feels your support, so they can do this hard thing!
How can you support your child when they feel anxious?
1. Listen and empathize.
- “I see how much that worries you. Tell me more,”
- “Hmm…That does sound a little scary. What would be the worst thing about that?”
2. Teach your child how anxiety works and about the neurological feedback loop that can make anxiety escalate.
Here’s how it works. We have a thought that makes us feel a bit anxious, like “Everyone is looking at me.” That thought causes us to shift into a state of emergency and we begin to rev up for flight or freeze. Those physical changes might include sweating or nausea or an strong urge to run and hide. As we notice the physical signs of anxiety, our brain recognizes them as signs that we’re in danger. That scares us even more! The brain and body keep sending each other escalating messages and the feeling of danger begins to spiral, “What if people notice that I’m sweating? What if I throw up?” And we begin to panic.
3. Teach your child that Worry is just trying to keep them safe, but they don’t need to listen to it.
Worry wants to keep your child safe at all costs, and happiness is not part of it’s job description. So it would like to keep your child in a box so that no danger could get in. But that would mean no fun, no growth, no real life!
Worry exaggerates and threatens with worst-case scenarios that are unlikely to happen. Teach your child to stand up to worries by using the NED approach:
Notice the worry that is scaring you and Normalize it. It’s okay to feel worry. It’s normal. Everyone feels worry sometimes. It is nothing to worry about!
Externalize the worry. The worry is not part of you. You can choose whether to have it. If this is a problem you can solve right now, do it. If this cannot be solved, then it is just noise – like a watchdog barking. There is no immediate problem. If one arises, you will handle it.
Dispute the worry. Since worry is about the future, it is never necessarily true. You can feel the fear and do it anyway. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable — that’s often how we learn. You can handle whatever happens.
Your child may find it easier to “externalize” the worry if they call the worry by a name, such as NED, or Nervous Nellie, or the Worry Monster.
4. Teach your child strategies to manage the physical feelings of anxiety.
Research has shown that slow deep breathing that lengthens the out-breath is calming to the nervous system and can stop the flood of stress hormones. After all, if a tiger was chasing you, you wouldn’t stop to calmly breathe!
A big hug from a safe person has a similar effect. In fact, scientists have identified many strategies that work to calm the body when it feels anxious.
Brainstorm with your child to come up with a list of calming strategies to try, so that your child can develop a short list of their favorites. Any calming strategy that your child uses consistently will become increasingly effective and will actually retrain the nervous system so that it recovers more quickly from stress.
(Dr. Laura’s new mini-course Helping Your Child with Anxiety includes a printable called 50 Ways To Calm Your Nervous System that gives you a list of research-verified strategies to calm down when you get upset or worried. It works for both kids and parents! )
How can children learn to tolerate the discomfort of facing anxiety-inducing events? You titrate in small doses, meaning that you start with smaller challenges so your child can be successful. You break bigger challenges down into smaller steps and take them one step at a time and celebrate every victory.
For a child to learn that they can handle something scary, they need to actually have handled scary things in the past. So instead of rescuing your child when they’re uncomfortable, support them through it. Be their backup. Reassure them. Help them brainstorm.
Learning that they can tolerate the discomfort of feeling a bit anxious and that things work out helps children become less anxious, because they begin to gain the confidence that they can handle whatever happens.
So if your child is afraid of riding a bike, you don’t get impatient or angry, and you don’t belittle them. You run alongside, holding up the bike. You go very slowly at first. Gradually you make it possible for them to be brave enough to put their feet on the pedals, and eventually to ask you to let go. They learn one step at a time, little bit by little bit, “I did something scary and I feel brave now.” Every time you support them gradually to do something anxiety-producing, your child learns that they’re a person who can be courageous in the face of fear and who can handle what life throws at them, and manage somehow to get through it. And maybe even to grow from it.
So give your child all the support in the world, but also believe in their ability to handle it. This approach builds your child’s tolerance for the uncomfortable physical sensations that come with fear. They learn to tolerate those sensations without getting more anxious. And that retrains the nervous system.
6. Decrease Anxiety with Emotional Preventive Maintenance.
When humans repress emotions, those emotions don’t go away. They get locked in the body, increasing tension. And they are always looking to bubble up to the surface to be felt and expressed and healed. So children need daily “emotional preventive maintenance” to give them a chance to feel safe enough to feel and express their emotions. This is especially important if a child has some emotions that they did not feel safe to express at some point in the past, that have been locked away in their “emotional backpack.”
- Empathy 24/7 – Creates the safety that is essential for emotional expression.
- Laughter and Roughhousing – Changes the body chemistry to decrease the stress hormones that contribute to anxiety. Children who tend to be more anxious need lots of laughter daily.
- One on one time with you – Strengthens safety and offers opportunity for emotional expression and working through whatever worries the child.
- Welcoming emotions – When you allow all emotions to be expressed, even while you prohibit certain behaviors like hitting or destroying property, your child empties their emotional backpack and becomes less anxious.
- Routines that include regular opportunities for connection – Allows your child to count on a time to tell you upsetting things and be heard.
For more on the emotional backpack:
When Your Child Is Hellbent on Misbehaving: Time to Invite a Meltdown?
7. Teach your child strategies to manage the human mind’s tendency to worry and negativity.
The human mind is constantly drawing conclusions about life, and often it gets into negative patterns. We can break those patterns by becoming more aware of our thoughts, and by challenging the negative or fearful ones. Remember, just because your mind thinks something does not mean it is true! And any thought about the future is not true just because it may or may not happen.
We can perceive ourselves as being safe in the world even when life is unpredictable. We do that by realizing that we can handle whatever happens.
Handling anxiety begins by normalizing it – it is predictable that we will feel some fear when we do hard things! — but deciding that we won’t let it stop us.
Anxiety is not actually dangerous. It’s our responses to the anxiety that cripple us. What if we taught our children simply to notice when they felt anxious? What if we told them, “Being a bit anxious is normal. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. You are big enough inside to handle this. What strategies can you use to handle this?”
What if we taught our children that they can feel the fear and do it anyway?
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Misha Voguel.