Being a parent is a full-time job, with highs and lows, periods of calm, periods of disruption, and everything in between. We know this. It’s what we signed up for. But what we are often unprepared for is how to cope when our child suffers from anxiety. What we’re even less prepared for is how their anxiety can cause our own emotional response.
As a parent, we take on the emotional load of our children. We want them to be happy, to feel safe, to stay calm. When dealing with something as complex as anxiety, we often feel like we’re doing something wrong, or we could be doing something differently.
In 2017, a new study revealed that 5.8% of children aged between 5 and 15 have at least one emotional disorder, including anxiety and depression.1 If we widen that group to 5 – 19 year olds, around 1 in 12 (8.1%) reported an emotional disorder.2
It’s an interesting statistic that shows how far we’ve come as a society in talking about mental health disorders. It makes it easier to know we’re not alone, and it also opens channels of discussion that allow us to find the best way to deal with both our children’s and our own feelings around their mental health.
Below are 8 top tips for what-to-do and what-not-to-do when dealing with an anxious child.
- You can’t eliminate anxiety; you can only help your child manage it
Although it’s difficult seeing your child in distress, removing the stressors that trigger them doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, try to help them learn how to tolerate their anxiety so they can function as well as they can despite it. Remain calm and relaxed while you talk to your child about what’s upsetting them. Encourage them to engage in the activities and allow the anxiety to take its natural course. Over time, the trigger response should decrease as they learn to cope with their fear.
- Avoiding what your child is afraid of embeds the fear
Helping your child avoid what upsets them is a short-term fix to a lifelong issue. Instead, speak to your child on a level when they’re in a situation that stresses them. Ask them to clarify what’s upsetting and see if you can talk them through the trigger.
- Realistic, positive expectations will provide clarity
Although you might want to tell your child they’ll come first place, everyone will like them, and they have nothing to be afraid of, that’s not always true. Instead, expressing your belief that they’ll be okay, that they’re strong, and that whatever happens they’ll survive it, you encourage their own belief in themselves.
- Respect, don’t empower
It’s a fine balance between agreeing with and belittling your child’s fears. For example, a dentist trip can cause any child anxiety, so finding the line between saying, ‘yes, it’s very scary’ and ‘don’t be silly’ can be as simple as, ‘I know you’re scared, but you’ll be okay and I’m here to help you through this.’
- Try not to reinforce fears
Your child’s anxiety can cause you anxiety, especially if you’ve been in a similar situation with them before. The best thing to do if you’re somewhere your child has previously become anxious is to relax as much as you can. Try not to tense or accidentally send them a message through your body language that you’re worried. Easier said than done, but leading by example will encourage your child to follow suit.
- Frame your questions positively
Instead of asking questions like, ‘How is your anxiety today?’ or ‘Are you nervous about the school trip?’ reframe the question positively or leave it open ended. So, ‘What feels good today?’ and ‘How are you feeling about the school trip?’ That way, you avoid feeding into the cycle of anxiety.
- Anticipation is worse than reality
The longer anyone is left to worry about something, the greater the level of anxiety about it. Try to keep the anticipation period to a minimum. If this is unavoidable, techniques like thinking through the fear can help. This is when you discuss what your child’s fear is and make a plan to overcome it together. For example, if your child is worried about you not picking them up after a school trip, you can ask:
“What do you think will happen if I don’t?”
They may answer something like, “I might get sad.”
“Well what would you do if you got sad?”
“I’d go and talk to a teacher.”
“And what would they do?”
“Ring you or wait with me.”
These sorts of conversations ease fears and put a contingency plan in place. You can even use code words or role play potential scenarios together. This deals with the anxiety in a healthy and practical way.
- Patience is key. Lead by example
This is probably the hardest challenge as a parent. Overcoming anxiety isn’t a linear process. It takes time, effort, and a heap of patience. Children are perceptive and mirror a lot of our behaviours. Taking the time to find healthy ways to cope with your own anxiety will help them manage theirs effectively too. It’s not about pretence, it’s about showing that everyone gets upset and stressed, and it’s about how we cope with it that matters.
For further information on handling anxiety in children, please visit our help page here.
- MentalHealth.org: What new statistics show about children’s mental health. Source link: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/what-new-statistics-show-about-childrens-mental-health
- Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017 [PAS]. Source link: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017