Dealing with the unknown is scary and difficult for many people. Change is a common source of anxiety in childhood, and while some children are able to cope with change relatively easily, others struggle with feelings of anxiety, worry and stress, leading to physical (stomachaches, headaches, sleep disturbances, nightmares, picky eating) and psychological (anxiety, difficulty concentrating, irritability, worry, stress) effects.
Other sources of anxiety include the family context (regular arguments, death, illness or separation, cases of abuse or neglect, etc.), but some children are born worriers.
We now know that childhood anxiety, if left untreated, can lead to psychological disorders in adolescence and adulthood. We also know that how you deal with anxiety-provoking situations can affect your child’s ability to cope effectively.
A relatively recent study found that children who grew up with anxious parents were more likely to be anxious themselves.
This study showed that genes had little to do with anxiety – children took their cues from their parents and that dictated their behavior. In other words, the children of anxious parents became anxious because their parents passed on this model of dealing with anxiety-provoking situations.
In an even more recent study, researchers found that helping parents change their behavior in the face of anxiety had a very positive impact on reducing anxiety in childhood and adolescence.
In this study, 124 children with anxiety were randomly assigned to receive either cognitive behavioral therapy or a parent-based treatment called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions).
The latter taught parents how to support their anxious children and give them the confidence to manage their anxiety.
The study found that about 87% of the children whose parents had participated in the SPACE program and 75% of the children who had participated in the CBT program had significantly fewer anxiety symptoms, as assessed by independent raters who were unaware of the treatment the children had received.
Both of these studies show that how you respond to anxiety-provoking situations can either teach your child to be anxious when faced with these situations, or give them the tools to manage anxiety more effectively. Here are three things you can do today to help your child better manage anxiety.
Three Ways to Help Your Anxious Child
1) Watch how you respond to anxiety-provoking situations
Your child observes how you react to anxiety-provoking situations and copies your behavior. If you react anxiously, you are modeling anxious behavior.
By maintaining a calm demeanor, you show your child that anxious situations are manageable. This means paying attention to your facial expressions or the words you use when talking about a difficult situation.
It may be difficult to “act calm” when you are struggling with anxiety, but practice can help you improve your response to anxiety-provoking situations.
If you are unable to respond calmly to a particular situation, leave the room and take time to process the situation alone and calm down before talking to your child.
2) Family accomodation makes your child’s behavior worse
It is not uncommon to try to “protect” an anxious child. This has been defined as family accommodation and includes behaviors such as avoiding situations that provoke your child’s anxiety, constantly reassuring your child, or “giving in” to practices such as always accompanying and staying with your child when she visits friends or letting her sleep in your bed.
Such practices, which are initially intended to “make her life easier,” actually make her behavior worse. Instead, help your child overcome her anxiety one step at a time.
For example, if she does not want to stay alone at a friend’s house, gradually reduce the time you spend with her when she visits friends. Shorter visits can also be an easy way to help her accept visiting friends alone.
3) Talk about your anxiety
Managing your anxiety better does not mean “never being anxious. Anxiety is a normal and even helpful emotion in certain situations. What’s more, suppressing your feelings can be harmful and have far-reaching negative consequences.
Explaining your anxiety to your child is an effective way to help them cope with their own anxiety. It shows them that anxiety is normal.
However, it is also important for them to see how you deal with that anxiety, so explaining what made you anxious AND what you did to feel better is more effective in teaching them how to deal with this emotion.
Talking about your anxiety is also important. It can help teach your child appropriate coping skills. It can also be an opportunity to help him or her come up with ways that he or she can deal with anxiety-provoking situations on their own.
Remember that age-appropriate resources such as The Emotions Kit can give you the tools you need to help your child manage difficult emotions.
When to Seek Help for Your Child’s Anxiety
Anxiety is a common and normal part of childhood, but there are times when it is wise to seek professional reassurance. Seek professional help when:
– Your child has debilitating anxiety that interferes with his or her family and school life.
– Your child’s anxiety seems to get worse despite your attempts to help.
– Your child’s anxiety is accompanied by serious physical or psychological problems.
Did you know that most inappropriate expressions of strong emotions such as anger and anxiety are linked to children’s inability to identify their emotions and respond to those emotions in a socially acceptable manner? Join my free email course to get simple tips to help your child navigate difficult emotions.
It is always a good idea to seek professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with your child’s behavior on your own.
This article was first published on ParentMap