What to do (and not to do) when children are anxious

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How to respect feelings without empowering fears

When children are chronically anxious, even the most well-meaning parents can enter a negative cycle and, not wanting the child to suffer, end up aggravating the child’s anxiety. This happens when parents, anticipating a child’s fears, try to protect the child from them. Here are some tips to help children escape the cycle of anxiety.

1. The goal is not to eliminate the anxiety, but to help the child manage it.

None of us want to see an unhappy child, but the best way to help them overcome anxiety is not to try to remove the stressors that trigger it; it is to help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and act in the best possible way, even when they are anxious. As a result, the anxiety will decrease or disappear over time.

2. Do not avoid things just because they make the child anxious.

Helping your child to avoid what he or she is afraid of will make her feel better in the short term, but it reinforces anxiety in the long term. If a child in an uncomfortable situation gets upset, she starts crying – not to be manipulative, but only because that is how she feels – and her parents take her away or “remove” what she is afraid of, she learns this coping mechanism, and this cycle tends to repeat itself.

3. Express positive but realistic expectations.

You cannot promise a child that their fears are unrealistic – that they will not fail a test, that they will have fun ice-skating, or that another child will not laugh at them during a performance. However, you can express confidence that he will be fine, that he will be able to handle it, and that when he faces his fears, the level of anxiety will decrease over time. This gives you confidence that your expectations are realistic and that you will not ask him to do something that he cannot handle.

4. Respect her feelings, but do not empower them.

It is important to understand that validating does not always mean agreeing. So, if a child is afraid to go to the doctor because she has to get a vaccine, you don’t want to belittle her fears, but you don’t want to increase them either. You need to listen to her and be empathetic, help her understand why she is anxious, and encourage her to feel that she can face her fears. The message you need to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay. I’m here and I’m going to help you get through it.”

5. Don’t Ask Targeted Questions.

Encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings, but try not to ask targeted questions like, “Are you looking forward to the big test? Are you worried about the science fair?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about the science fair?”

6. Do not reinforce the child’s fears.

What you should not do is say, either with your tone of voice or body language: “Maybe this is something you should be afraid of.” Let’s say a child has had a negative experience with a dog, the next time she’s with a dog, you might be anxious about how she’ll respond and unwittingly send a message that she should be really worried.

7. Encourage the child to tolerate her anxiety.

Tell your child that you value “work” that makes her tolerate anxiety in order to do what she wants or needs to do. It is really encouraging her to get involved in life and let the anxiety follow its natural course. We call this the “habituation curve” and will diminish over time as she continues to have contact with the stressor. It may not fall to zero, it may not be as fast as you’d like, but that is how we overcome our fears.

8. Try to keep “the anticipation time” short.

When we are afraid of something, the hardest moment is really before we do “this action”. Therefore, another practical rule for parents is to really try to eliminate or reduce the “anticipation time”. If a child is nervous about going to a doctor’s appointment, you don’t want to start a discussion about it two hours before you go; it will probably make your child more anxious. Try to reduce that time to a minimum.

9. Think about things with the child.

Sometimes discussing what would happen if a child’s fear became a reality helps to control it – how would he deal with it? A child who is anxious about separating from his parents may worry about what would happen if they did not come for him, for example. So, talk about it. If your mother didn’t show up at the end of soccer practice, what would you do? “Well, I’d tell the coach my mom’s not here.” And what do you think Coach would do? “Well, he’d call my mom. Or he’d wait with me.” For some children, having a plan can reduce uncertainty in a healthy and effective way.

10. Try to demonstrate healthy ways to deal with anxiety.

There are several ways to help children deal with anxiety, such as letting them see how you deal with your anxiety. Children are insightful and will pick up if you keep complaining over the phone to a friend that you can’t handle stress or anxiety. I’m not saying to pretend you don’t have stress and anxiety, but to let children hear and see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, then feeling good about going through it.

Article originally published on the Child Mind website freely translated and adapted by Mariana França.

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