Anxiety doesn’t always make sense to everyone. An anxious brain is usually one that is overprotective and in survival mode. As parents you sometimes try to anticipate your child’s triggers and protect them from feeling anxious. The best way to help your child isn’t to protect them from the feeling but to help them learn to manage those anxieties. If you avoid things that make your child worried, then overall you are reinforcing the anxiety.
Respect their feelings
Recognise that their fear is real no matter how minor you think it is. Never belittle the fear they have that won’t help and could make your child believe there’s something wrong with them for being afraid. During times of high anxiety logic and reason don’t get through. What you must do is listen and be empathetic to your child. Remember validating their fears is not agreeing that they should feel anxious, we don’t want to strengthen the fear. What you want is to let them know that it’s okay to feel scared and that you are there, and you can help them.
Find the right words
It’s not easy trying to say the right things without making the anxiety worse. Saying “Don’t worry” doesn’t help an anxious child and yet there is no one size fits all fix either.
Empathy is your friend, try saying
“I get scared sometimes. It’s not nice”
“I know this is hard”
“Tell me about it”
Do not interrupt, just listen, allow your child time to process.
Work through the anxiety
Help your child identify their feeling and work through it;
- Do a calming exercise together. An anxious child may not be able to focus on calming down alone so may need you to model it. Try a breathing technique.
- Direct their focus elsewhere. Ask them to hold a watch and let you know when 2 minutes has passed. Sometimes this gives them enough time to process the feeling in a quiet, calm way.
- Give them a ball of play dough to squeeze. The action of squeezing with your hands can relax tense muscles allowing time for your child to process the feeling and for it to pass.
- If you have practiced mindfulness or visualisation techniques with your child before this can be your go to anxiety tool. But if you have never practiced mindfulness with your child during calm moments then this will not work during a time of high anxiety as they will not be open to new experience.
- Ask your child what they need. They may just need a hug to help them feel safe.
- If your anxious child is focused on a “what if” – “what if I can’t” “what if I forget” “what if you forget to pick me up” “what if I get lost” – reassurance isn’t helpful. Instead question the fear – “what if that happened? What would you do?”. This can help your child find their own solution, it gives them confidence to problem solve in a safe environment. If your child is unsure of a solution walk them through one hypothetically. Let them see that their fear is manageable.
- Use a grounding exercise. Ask your child to say out loud;
5 things they see – I see the door etc
4 things they feel – I feel the shoes on my feet etc
3 things they hear – I hear the bird song etc
2 things they smell – I can smell perfume etc
1 thing they taste – I can taste toothpaste etc
Not all techniques work for every anxious child. As a parent you know your own child and can discover which works best for them. Remember anxiety management for children should be simple and straightforward.