Parenting an anxious child can be stressful and overwhelming. This can lead parents to feel “stuck” and unsure how to respond when their child is overwhelmed with anxiety, feeling helpless and confused. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that may help your anxious child.
First the Don’ts:
1. Don’t Excessively Reassure your Child
Reassurance is trying to comfort a child by telling them everything will be OK and that there is nothing to worry about. Providing some reassurance may be helpful initially, but constantly reassuring anxious children makes it hard for them to discover their own coping strategies. Reassurance may even act as a “reward” because it provides the child attention (reinforcement) for talking about their anxiety.
2. Don’t Permit or Encourage Avoidance
It is hard for parents to watch their children struggle. Sometimes they may not even realize they are encouraging avoidance (e.g., letting child stay home from school or not talk to someone new) because they are afraid of their child getting hurt by others or that they will feel sick. Additionally, parents may find themselves nagging their child to complete anxiety-provoking tasks. Avoiding may allow kids to feel less anxious in the short-term, but denies them opportunities to experience success and lean how to handled challenging situations.
3. Don’t Act Impatient or Show Anger
For some parents, it’s hard to understand their children’s anxiety and continued avoidance. It can be helpful to remind yourself of what it may be like to confront your worst fears. Pay attention to times you are feeling particularly angry or impatient. Even though you don’t mean to provide a negative message, children can internalize those messages as if they are “bad” or something is very wrong with them. This can become more difficult to beat than anxiety!
Now for the Do’s:
1. Do Reward Brave and Non-anxious Behavior
It’s important the rewards are something your child desires, but it doesn’t have to be something you buy! Praise and quality time with an activity your child enjoys are some of the best rewards you can provide your child. The type of reward should match how difficult the activity was for the child; we wouldn’t purchase a video game for something that isn’t difficult for your child, nor would we provide a small treat when he or she faces one of their biggest fears.
2. Do Ignore Undesirable Behaviors
A child might ask for excessive reassurance or they might become upset or agitated when they are anxious. Just as it is important to provide them positive attention and praise when they behave in ways that show bravery, it’s important to give as little attention as you can when they are behaving anxiously, until that behavior has stopped.
3. Do Model Brave and Non-anxious Behavior
You serve as a model for your child, and it is helpful for your child to see you experiencing difficulties and coping effectively. The more you can show your child examples of you coping effectively, the better. Though it can be difficult if you experience a lot of anxiety yourself, it is important to try to focus on the messages you are sending your child.
4. If you continue to see your child struggle, it’s OK to take them to see a professional who specializes in anxiety disorder treatment, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Often, there is a stigma attached to seeing a psychologist, and treatment can seem daunting. However, most childhood anxiety disorders, when left untreated, can persist into adolescence and adulthood. Anxiety disorders are not much different than any other illness, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, and it can be managed with the right treatment. You can think of a Cognitive Behavioral psychologist as a teacher who will help provide your child with the skills to conquer their worries and help them face their fears. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches children:
- How to cope constructively when they come in contact with their fears.
- How to be a detective with their thoughts. For example, how likely is it that something dangerous will happen if they face their fear or what would be the worst that can happen?
- To face their fears and decrease avoidance in a controlled and safe setting.