Childhood Anxiety Specialist in Centennial, CO
Coping with your Child’s Anxiety
Try to know your own triggers for anxiety and seek help coping if needed. It’s possible to inadvertently reinforce a child’s anxiety through your own behavior, such as over-involvement in a child’s daily life, over-control of the child’s environment, and encouraging safety and dependence over autonomy.
What can escalate or exacerbate anxiety?
- Over involvement: any over-protection, over-control, or attempts that parents make to direct their children’s behaviors.
- Reassurance: any attempt to reassure children of the probability or cost of a negative outcome in an unrealistic way.
- Reinforcing avoidance and dependence: anything said or done to indicate that it is OK or even good for children to avoid things that make them anxious.
- Anxious behavior: anything done or said that reinforces anxiety. For example, Mark displays anxious behavior when he tells Billy that he needs to prepare more for giving a speech, even though Billy is highly anxious about it and is already prepared.
- Helplessness: anything done or said that indicates that a child cannot be helped or that a situation and anxiety cannot be controlled.
- Passivity: any withdrawal or unresponsiveness to a child’s anxiety. For example, doing nothing because a parent believes that the child will just grow out the anxiety one day.
- Negativity: any criticism, negative remarks, punishment, or blaming pointed toward the child. For example, getting angry and criticizing when a child says they are anxious and doesn’t want to go to school or to a social event.
Talk about how you cope, and what you do. If you keep thinking about something scary – try to distract, talk, change thinking, exercise or a combination of several strategies.
Understanding adult fears can be very different than child fears. Children can often switch thoughts/feelings quicker than adults. After a talk, a child may move onto asking for a sleepover or going to the mall. This is normal, and shouldn’t be seen as the child being in denial. Just try to check in at another time to see if the child has any other questions or thoughts. Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Try not to interrupt — allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond. Each child is different, and may need different ways to express or process their fears. Some just say it, some like to talk in third person or about friends, some act it out in play, some draw, and some write. Don’t feel like you need to take all fear away or “make it all better”. It is normal to feel afraid. How you cope with it is what you try to teach your child. When children are afraid it is scary for parents, and they want to fix it. Sometimes children just want to talk about it, and then move on.
Helping Kids with Anxiety: Strategies to Help Anxious Children
When childhood anxiety is heightened, it’s natural for parents to go into protection mode. Parents may attempt to solve problems for the child, help their child avoid triggers of anxiety, and/or try to engineer a worry-free lifestyle. While there are certain accommodations that can help anxious children in the classroom, and it’s a good idea to slow the daily pace to decrease overall stress for anxious children, parents cannot protect their kids from experiencing anxiety. What they can do is help their children learn to manage anxiety.
Set Clear Expectations
It’s important to have similar expectations for anxious children that you have for non-anxious children. However, it can also be helpful to proceed at a slower pace and make some accommodations. While your other kids likely want to attend every birthday party, your anxious child probably wants to avoid them all. In this situation, it may be helpful to attend small parties that don’t include overwhelming triggers (bounce houses, loud music, lack of structure/supervision). Setting clear expectations and helping your child create appropriate benchmarks to meet those expectations teaches your child that she/he can work through anxious feelings and manage their anxiety.
Let Your Child Worry
No child ever stopped worrying because a parent said, “Don’t worry!”, or “Relax!”. In fact, worry serves an important function in our lives. Without some amount of worry, we wouldn’t stop to consider actual dangers that do threaten us. Give your child uninterrupted time with you each day to vent worries and brainstorm solutions together. Avoid Avoidance Just like telling your child not to worry won’t make those anxious thoughts disappear, avoiding triggers of anxiety won’t help your child learn to cope. If your child becomes anxious around dogs, for example, crossing the street each time you encounter a dog or staying away from all dogs will only validate that anxious thought. It sends the message that all dogs are dangerous. It’s better to desensitize your child to triggers of anxiety by taking small steps. Try looking at pictures of different breeds online and talking about what feelings they trigger. Next, watch dogs at play at a dog park from a safe distance. Finally, ask to visit with a calm, older dog of a friend or a therapy dog. By taking small steps, kids can learn to work through their fears and worries.
The anxious thought cycle is overwhelming because it causes feelings of helplessness. When anxiety spikes, children get caught in a cycle of “what ifs” and “I can’ts.” Anxious kids tend to engage in a variety of cognitive distortions such as black and white thinking and overgeneralizing. Carving out regular time to work on positive reframing empowers your anxious child to take control over his anxious thoughts. It works like this: 1. Name a worry floating around in your brain right now. 2. What is the worry telling you? 3. Let’s break it down and see if that worry is 100% right. 4. How can we take that worry thought and change it to a positive thought? For example, your child voices a fear that the kids in their class don’t like them. Why do they think this? Because a boy in class laughed when they didn’t know the answer, and now they are scared that their classmates think they are dumb. Help them break down the reality of their situation: “I answer questions in class every day. A friend always sits with me at lunch. I play with my friends at recess.” Now reframe the situation: “It hurt my feelings when the boy laughed, but I have other good friends in my class.”
Help Them Build a Coping Kit
If you want to empower your child to work through his worries, you have to help him learn a variety of coping skills. One thing that helps anxious kids is having a concrete list of strategies to use in a moment of anxiety. While some can memorize a list of strategies, others might need to write them down. Try these:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Stress ball
- Write it out
- Talk back to worries and reframe thoughts
- Get help from an adult
Anxiety can be paralyzing for young children. When kids feel completely overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, they struggle to do everyday things like attend school or go to soccer practice. Anxious children even avoid fun things like play dates and movies. It’s important to empathize with your child. This normalizes what they experience and helps them understand that they aren’t alone, and you will guide them through it.
Get Back to Basics
Your anxious child doesn’t need to play every sport and attend every party, but he does need to slow down and focus on his basic health needs:
- Healthy meals
- Plenty of water
- Downtime to decompress
- Outdoor free play
- Daily exercise (think riding bikes, playing at the park, etc.)
Final tip: Take care of your own needs, too. Parenting an anxious child can be all-consuming. Between interrupted sleep and constant worries, child anxiety can take a toll on the caregivers. Make sure to prioritize your own health needs so that you have the energy you need to help your child through this difficult time.
Books for Parents:
Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety: A Guide for Caregivers by Eli R. Lebowitz and Haim Omer https://www.spacetreatment.net
Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD: A Scientifically Proven Program for Parents by Eli R. Lebowitz
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, Revised and Updated Edition: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life–from Toddlers to Teens by Tamar Chansky Ph.D.
Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Andrew R. Eisen, Linda B. Engler, Joshua Sparrow
Anxiety Relief for Kids: On-the-Spot Strategies to Help Your Child Overcome Worry, Panic, and Avoidance by Bridget Flynn Walker PhD
Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Ronald Rapee PhD, Ann Wignall D Psych, Susan Spence PhD
Overcoming School Anxiety – Diane Peters Mayer
Books and Workbooks for Teens:
CBT Toolbox for Children and Adolescents: Over 200 Worksheets & Exercises for Trauma, ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, Depression & Conduct Disorders–by Lisa Phifer, Amanda Crowder, Tracy Elsenraat
The Mindfulness Journal for Teens: Prompts and Practices to Help You Stay Cool, Calm, and Present by Jennie Marie Battistin
The Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Anxiety and Worry (Instant Help Solutions) by Lisa M. Schab
My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic By Michael A. Tompkins, PhD, and Katherine A. Martinez, PsyD
Outsmarting Worry (An Older Kid’s Guide to Managing Anxiety) by Dawn Huebner
The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook – Edmund Bourne – Workbook for teens and parents.
Books and Workbooks for Younger Kids:
What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety (What-to-Do Guides for Kids) by Kristen Lavallee and Silvia Schneider
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (What to Do Guides for Kids) Workbook To Do with Kids by Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews
What to Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems With Sleep (What-to-Do Guides for Kids) by Dawn Huebner
What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD (What-to-Do Guides for Kids) by Dawn Huebner
Wemberly Worried – Kevin Henkes – Picture book for younger kids
I’m Worried – Michale Ian Black. Ages 3-8
Ruby Finds a Worry – Tom Percival. Ages 3-8
Mindful Kids: 50 Mindfulness Activities for Kindess, Focus and Calm – Whitney Stewart, Ages 8+