The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping Your Anxious Child
Written by Amy Saborsky, Psy.D.
Parenting a child with anxiety can be stressful and overwhelming. This can lead parents to feel “stuck” and unsure how to respond to their child’s anxiety, often feeling like nothing that they do or say seems to work. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that may help your anxious child.
First the Don’ts:
1. Don’t excessively reassure your child
Reassurance is trying to comfort a child by telling the child everything will be OK and that there is nothing to worry about. Providing some reassurance may be helpful initially, but constantly reassuring anxious children makes it hard for them to learn how to discover their own coping strategies. It can even act as a “reward” because it gives the child attention for talking over and over about being nervous.
2. Don’t Permit or encourage avoidance
It is hard for parents to watch their children struggle. Sometimes they may not even realize that they are encouraging avoidance (e.g., letting child stay home from school or not talk to someone new) because they are afraid of their child getting hurt by others or that they will feel sick. Additionally, it can be hard, as a parent, to continuously nag your child to complete anxiety provoking tasks. Avoiding might make kids less anxious in the short-term, but usually denies the child opportunities to learn they can handle the situation, leading to continued anxiety.
3. Don’t become impatient
For some parents, it’s hard to understand why their child isn’t doing more things and why they are so anxious. It can sometimes be helpful to remind yourself that what you are asking your child to do is like you having to confront your worst nightmare. It is important to try to watch out for times you get angry or impatient. Even though you don’t mean to give a negative message, it can make children feel badly about themselves, which can make it harder to beat the anxiety.
Now for the Do’s:
1. Do reward brave and non-anxious behavior
It’s important that the rewards are something that your child wants, but it doesn’t have to be something you buy. It can be praise from you, time spent doing something the child enjoys, either with you or with others. The type of reward should match how difficult the activity was for the child; we wouldn’t give a video game for something that isn’t that hard for the child, nor would we give a small treat when the child faces one of their biggest fears.
2. Do ignore behaviors that you don’t want
A child might ask for excessive reassurance or they might become upset or agitated when they are anxious. Just as it is important to give them positive attention and praise when they behave in ways you like and show bravery, it’s important to give as little attention as you can when they are behaving anxiously, until that behavior has stopped.
3. Do model brave and non-anxious behavior
You serve as a model for your child, and it is helpful for your child to see you experiencing difficulties and coping effectively. The more you can show your child examples of you coping, the better. Though it can be difficult if you experience a lot of anxiety yourself, it is important to try to focus on the messages you are sending your child.
4. If you continue to see your child struggle, it’s OK to take them to see a professional who specializes in anxiety disorder treatment.
Often, there is a stigma against seeing therapists, and psychological treatment can seem daunting. However, most childhood anxiety disorders, when left untreated, can continue to persist into adolescence and adulthood. It can help to realize that anxiety, is no different than any other illness, like diabetes or high blood pressure, and that it can be easily curable with the right treatment. You can think of the therapist as a teacher who will help provide your child with the skills to conquer their worries and have them facing their fears without a challenge.
Therapists trained in anxiety disorder treatment can teach your child how to cope constructively when they come in contact with their fears, by providing the child with skills to use when facing their worries. Special breathing techniques, teaching a child to be a thought detective with their fears (“How likely is it that something dangerous will happen if they face their fear?”, “What’s the worst that can happen?”), and helping the child face their fears and decrease avoidance in a controlled and safe setting are likely to be a part of anxiety disorder treatment. If you have questions about anxiety disorder treatment for your child, you can feel free to contact us at Associates for Counseling and Educational Services and one of our therapists would be happy to speak with you and address whatever questions you may have.
Rapee, R., Wignall, A., Spence, S., Lyneham, V., & Cobham, V. (2008). Helping your anxious child: A step-by-step guide for parents (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.