How to Parent an Anxious Child Without Making it Worse
When children struggle with moderate to severe anxiety, even the calmest and positive parent can become stressed out and impatient. If you are one of those parents, you know how it feels to be held hostage. Children who worry too much and need constant reassurance tend to do anything to avoid situations that they consider frightening. Some of those fears seem absurd to parents and they have a hard time understanding why their child feels that way. Avoidance sometimes also comes with behaviors that are difficult to manage such as lying, isolating, and feeling sick, crying, and throwing a fit. This can make parents feel overwhelmed, powerless, and confused as they struggle with knowing how to support and encourage their children. This dynamic can create a negative cycle that exacerbates both, the parent's and child’s stress and anxiety.
To parent an anxious child it’s important to accept that the goal is not to eliminate anxiety but to support your child in the process of learning how to manage it. Although seeing your child struggle feels really upsetting, you need to allow the child to work through the anxiety so she learns how to cope with it. By learning how to tolerate their anxiety, the child will learn that she can do things even when they are scared and anxious. So, don’t avoid difficult and anxiety-provoking situations to save your child from the struggle or avoid your child’s anxiety. Avoidance might alleviate anxiety in the moment but tends to reinforce it and make it worse. It also teaches the child that “she can’t do hard things” which can become by itself as the default mechanism to use when anxious, a pattern that can be difficult to discontinue later in life.
Instead of removing the stressor or avoid anxiety-provoking situations, encourage your child to use self-talk to decrease anxiety and encourage her to receive help. You can’t promise your child she won’t be anxious but you can promise her that you will help her go through it and that she will be ok. Anxiety is very uncomfortable but is not really harmful. Tell her you’re proud of her once she faces her challenge or stays with the feeling for a period of time. You can say “I know if was hard for you to meet new people and you came along anyway! I’m proud of you for that”. Validating her anxiety and encouraging her to “face her fear” will increase her sense of confidence and make your bond stronger. Validation doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with her, it means you’re acknowledging the feeling without minimizing or amplifying it. It means that you understand her experience and know it’s hard and uncomfortable for her and that you’ll be there to face it with her. Knowing that she is not alone will make her feel more empowered to take risks around feared experiences.
Therapy can be really helpful. It can help your child deal with her anxiety and it can teach you ways to support her and help her contain it. Here are some tips you can use as a parent to support your child:
Keep your own anxiety in check and model healthy ways to cope with it
Identify what triggers your child’s anxiety and what helps her to be calm
Help your child to identify “the worse that could happen”
Help your child use logic against worries and how to talk back to them
Teach your child to problem solve
If you have concerns about your child’s anxiety, her ability to manage her emotions, behavior or relationships, please contact Carolina Gaviria, LMHC, NCC to set up an appointment at 954-391-5305 Carolina provides child counseling, teen therapy, and family therapy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She offers Bilingual counseling in English and Spanish.