Anxiety is the most common type of psychological problem found in children and adolescents. Problems with anxiety can negatively affect a child’s life. For example, anxious children tend to have fewer friends than other children their age because they may be shy or fear meeting or being with new people. Anxiety can also interfere with a child’s academic achievement. For example, children who worry a great deal are likely to struggle with homework completion as well as learning lessons in the classroom because they are pre-occupied with their worry and thus cannot focus adequately. The amount of anxiety will vary from child to child and may also change depending on the situation. Regardless, anxiety is uncomfortable and if not adequately addressed can be a significant hindrance in life.
Being a parent of an anxious child can be really challenging, and no doubt there will be moments when you feel that you just don’t know what to do in response to your child’s anxiety. There are numerous ways of handling a child’s anxiety. Some of the more common strategies follow:
Reward brave, non-anxious child behavior. As a parent look for and catch your child doing “brave” behaviors and reward them. Bravery in these cases specifically means when a child is doing something he or she normally resists doing due to fear or anxiety.
Ignore behaviors that you don’t want repeated. This tip involves removing your attention from your child’s anxious behavior and waiting until it has stopped before attending. Of course your child should be made aware of the purpose for this response so that he/she understands what needs to happen to regain your attention. This strategy is particularly useful for children who repeatedly seek reassurance or ask the same worry-related questions over and over again.
Help prevent avoidance. If you allow your child to avoid a feared situation or thing, his or her anxiety will only continue and worsen. Avoidance behaviors do not allow children to learn to cope with their anxiety. My personal preference for younger children is slow and gradual exposure to the feared situation with parental support along the way.
Communicate empathy. When your child expresses his worries and fears, it is very important that he or she feels listened to, understood, supported, and encouraged to overcome it. A common mistake parents make is to say invalidating things such as “There is nothing to be worried about” or “Stop worrying.” These statements do not offer comfort and encouragement to the anxious child. Instead, use validating and empathic statements such as “I understand this makes you worried and we will get through it.”
Model non-anxious behavior. Children learn to behave by watching others around them. If parents or caretakers are anxious themselves, then their behaviors may be inadvertently maintaining a child’s anxiety. It is important that parental reactions to a child’s distress are calming and reassuring, rather than reactive and alarming.
Maria Kanakos, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist