Our kids resemble us more than we think. That’s just the way it is. We act as models in everything we do: we teach our kids to talk in a particular way, perceive things in a certain way and react in a certain way. We also infect them with our anxiety.
Nothing is as common as anxiety. Everyone experiences it.
Evidence suggests that much of our performance is driven and enhanced by anxiety, without which much would be left unaccomplished. Too much anxiety, however, can be poisonous.
You’ve probably heard that anxiety-prone parents are more likely to pass on their anxiety to their children. In other words, parents who suffer from too much anxiety are more likely to raise children prone to anxiety-related disorders.
Anxiety is one of the most common issues children and adolescents struggle with.
If overlooked, anxiety can have a negative impact on the emotional and social development of a child. There is proof that if anxiety in childhood is not addressed, it may lead to severe depression in adulthood.
There is good news however: parental anxiety doesn’t necessarily have to be a death sentence. According to a new study, there are strategies available to help parents reduce their children’s level of anxiety. This study found that in their attempt attempts to protect their children from anxiety, parents of anxious children don’t always use the right strategies.
Evidence-based strategies to help your anxious child
1) Step into the fear.
We all want to protect our children: your daughter is scared of swimming, you make her do piano instead. Your son is timid, you avoid situations in which he has to express himself or make new friends.
This, according to science, is one of the greatest mistakes you can make when dealing with an anxious child. Overprotection increases anxiety, rather than decreases it. Indeed, research suggests that constantly shielding your child prevents him from overcoming anxiety.
However, all attempts should be age-appropriate and should take your child’s level of fear into account. Taking baby steps, one day at a time, can teach your child that he has the necessary resources to overcome his fears.
What you can do
- Focus on solutions and explore multiple options.
- Reflect on the worst scenario that could happen. Getting into the habit of exploring “the worst that could happen?” can help arm your child with the necessary coping tools.
- Explain to your anxious child that although he may not control the situation, he can control how he reacts to it. Teach him to explore his environment and develop skills to address difficult or unexpected challenges.
2) Foster optimism
Children’s perception of anxiety-provoking situations largely depends on how you perceive and speak of those situations yourself.
Our children interpret their environment based on how we interpret everyday events so we need to analyse our explanatory style and consciously choose more optimistic interpretations.
If you constantly view situations as dangerous and irresolvable, your child’s anxiety will increase.
Talk about dangerous situations by all means but more importantly, teach your child that she can overcome or avoid them: Yes, cars can be dangerous but adopting practices such as always using zebra crossings can increase safety.
3) Set your child free
Children whose parents are over controlling and critical are more likely to suffer from high levels of anxiety. When we encourage our children to participate in decision-making, we help reduce their anxiety.
Make it a habit to ask questions:
- What do you think would happen if…?
- What do you think you can do if…?
- What would you do if…?
4) Work on yourself first
You know how they say that teaching your child about emotional regulation is one of the greatest lessons you can teach her? The same can be said of adults.
Anxiety disorder in adulthood can often be traced to childhood anxiety disorders.
Parents suffering from anxiety often need to first address the issues underlying their anxiety before they can help their children overcome anxiety. What drives your anxiety? If you’re unable to control your own anxiety, chances are that you’ll pass it on to your kids.
Anxiety is normal and can be overcome. You can teach this to your child by talking about situations that made you anxious and how you handled them.
Our anxiety is often reflected in our actions and in our words so be careful about the words you use around your kids. Remember that kids fears are sometimes driven by what they overhear.
There are books and courses to help anxious parents deal with their anxiety in order to avoid passing it onto their kids. For instance, the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children weaves research and common everyday examples to help parents identify common anxiety-enhancing patterns.
It is an awesome resource because it proposes practical exercises and techniques to help both children and parents change their perception of anxiety.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, seeking help will help both you and your child.
When you’ve worked on yourself, help your child learn to identify and manage anxiety. Help her explore possible options to help her deal with her anxiety by herself (calm-down jars, calm-down boxes, power cards, etc.) and prevent you from having to step in too quickly.
5) Choose flight
Sometimes, despite all our efforts, we just can’t get over our anxiety.
In such cases, it’s better to flee! If you have an irrational fear of dentists, don’t take your son to his dental visit – it will be better for you both if someone else does it. If you insist on participating in anxiety-provoking situations, you’re bound to pass on your anxiety to your child.
The thing to remember about anxiety is that it’s a normal part of life – we’re all anxious when we start a new job, or when our kids start school, or when we’re unsure about how a particular situation will turn out.
Teaching your kids to address anxiety is not about trying to eliminate it from their lives. It is about teaching them to identity and manage this emotion in an appropriate manner. What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety is a self-help guide intended for 6 to 12 year olds to help them learn to control their anxiety.
The guide uses simple concepts kids can understand and proposes lots of ideas and activities to empower them to manage anxiety by themselves.
If you’d like to teach your child to identify and learn to manage difficult emotions such as anger and anxiety, check out my free e-mail course here.
Further reading: Why and How to Talk to Kids About Emotions
An earlier version of this post appeared on Parent.co
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