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Helping Your Child Navigate Anxiety

Every morning the battle begins anew and your resolve is wearing thin. Your attempt to wake your child up for school is met with the well-worn retort, “I don’t feel so good.” You coax him out of bed and are aware of the pattern evident in your child’s reluctance to go to school. “Come on, sweetie,” you say. “You don’t want to be late for the bus.”

“Please don’t make me go to school,” he says quietly.

“Son, your teacher and friends will be so sad if you don’t go.”

“I just don’t want to go,” he replies.

“How about I drive you, so you don’t have to take the bus.”

“I hate school,” he says vehemently.

You now begin to feel frustrated that this has become a daily battle and say, “Well, son, unless you want to be flipping burgers for the rest of your life, you need to get dressed and go to school...NOW!” Tears well up in his eyes, and you feel terrible, not knowing whether to hug him and tell him he can be homeschooled or whether to continue to use tough love and get him out the door. You feel compassion for your child and can remember struggling with separation and social anxiety yourself when you were young. Negative emotions, however, were never really expressed in your family, so this all feels like new territory. Parenting is hard, and it sure felt easier when he was a baby and his feelings weren’t so complex!

If you can relate to this, you are not alone! My hope in writing this article is to give parents some helpful ways to approach and help their children cope with their anxiety. All children deal with some level of anxiety and worry, but when the anxiety and worry begins to interfere with a child’s daily functioning, it’s possible that they are struggling with an anxiety disorder. If this is a concern for you, I encourage you to talk to your child’s doctor, or to a counselor, therapist, or psychologist so they can better assess what kind of treatment might be helpful for your child. In this article, I want to highlight 5 things that you as a parent can try when your child is struggling with anxiety.

1. Avoid dismissing the worry as invalid.

First, we should resist the urge to convince our children that they shouldn’t be worried. We might hear something like, “I’m afraid to be in my room by myself!” Many of us might want to say, “That’s silly, your room is perfectly safe. You have nothing to be afraid of.” No matter how silly or insignificant the worry seems to us, however, you can’t convince someone that their anxiety is not valid. Instead, I recommend you get down on your child’s level -- literally -- and take several deep breaths together. Let them know that you hear that they are feeling anxious, and praise them for sharing their feelings. “I hear that you are feeling scared about being in your room by yourself. I get it. What do you think we can do to make you feel safe?”

2. Normalize the worry.

Anxiety can actually be helpful at times. For example, if they feel worried when they see a classmate bully one of their friends, the worry itself should prompt them that this behavior is not okay and they need to go get help. Another example includes the anxiety they feel before a test. Parents can normalize this type of anxiety by explaining that it’s the body’s way of recognizing the importance of the event and helps the brain focus and take the test seriously.

3. Help your children externalize the worry.

Give the worry a name and talk back to it! Externalizing simply means “to express on the outside.” I loved Pixar’s movie Inside Out and often use the movie to explain how anxiety works to my younger clients. In the movie, the character Fear lives in Riley’s brain and alerts her of things that might cause her danger. There are times, however, when Fear gets too much control. When that occurs, we must recognize what has happened and tell Fear to calm down. This strategy can empower kids to see that they can have some control over their thoughts and feelings.

4. Teach your children to challenge their thoughts.

This is a great follow-up to the idea of externalizing anxiety and is a great skill for kids to develop. I recently worked with a young boy who had seen a scary show and was not able to sleep in his room because he feared a robber would break into his house. I worked with his parents to help him express and then examine that thought. For instance, while there are some bad people in the world, there are also some wise things the family could do to stay safe: lock the door, ask who’s there before answering, etc. The child could also be confident that his neighborhood and home are very safe and that his parents and brother sleep nearby.

5. Build emotional intelligence in your children.

We often see a tantrum as simply defiance or a child’s unwillingness to engage in a task as disobedience. But if we as parents can recognize that beneath these behaviors exists a variety of feelings, such as fear or anxiety, we can help our children learn to express those feelings in a healthy and appropriate way. It’s also important to model this for them by appropriately expressing our own feelings.

Watching your child struggle with anxiety can be painful, but take heart! Providing a safe place for your child to express his or her fears and being able to empower them to work through their anxieties is a wonderful gift you can give them.

Gillean Wade, MS, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who practices at A&M Christian Counseling Center in Bryan, Texas. In addition to being a therapist, she is also a wife and mother to three children, all of whom have very big feelings :-)

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