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Childhood is full of little worries, like who you’ll sit next to at lunch, passing this week’s spelling test, or walking past that scary barking dog at the end of the block.
But sometimes kids’ worries grow bigger than your teen’s Instagram audience, faster than your tween in a growth spurt, or are more numerous than fidget spinners in the lunchroom.
It’s painful to see your kid suffering from anxiety and it’s heartbreaking to watch them do things that set them apart from their peers, like clinging to you at soccer practice, crying at birthday parties, or refusing to participate in school to the point that their grades suffer. It can also be exasperating to hear them worry about things that seem irrational or to worry about the same things over and over again. Luckily, you can help.
Lending Your Anxious Kid a Hand
Here are 5 simple tips to ease the mind of your anxious child.
Help them make a game plan.
Teach them to talk back to their anxiety.
Remind them that what revs up must slow down.
Wean them off unhelpful rituals.
Hear them out.
Tip #1: Help them make a game plan.
Sometimes kids forget that they have the power to cope with challenges. Help them realize that they can solve most age-appropriate problems themselves or with a little help. If they express worries to you, say: “It sounds like you’re worried about X,” or “I hear that you’re nervous about Y.” This gives them a name for what they’re doing or feeling, and avoids the shutdown of “There’s nothing to be scared of,” or “Just relax.”
Then help them make a plan. If their fears came to pass, what could they do to cope with the situation? If they need a little help, who could they ask?
For instance, “What if Jenna stops being your friend? What could you do?” “What if you get lost in the mall–who would you ask for help?” “What if you feel like you’re going to throw up in class? What would you do?”
Helping them make a plan does two things: one, it helps them move beyond a problem to a solution, which can reduce uncertainty, the driver of worry. Two–and most importantly–it sends the message that you have confidence in them. You trust that they are capable and can handle age-appropriate challenges.
Tip #2: Teach them to talk back to their anxiety.
Sometimes kids don’t realize that their worries are just one side of a conversation. They can talk back to their worries in order to make themselves feel better and more confident.
In order to do this, suggest they choose a name for their anxiety–for example, Big Bad Worries, Worried Jessica, Worry Monkey–or they can picture a character sitting on their shoulder. This helps personify the anxiety and makes it separate from your child. Then encourage them to talk back to it. Work with them to come up with some helpful talking points for when anxiety strikes.
Kids old enough for phones can jot a ready-made pep talk into their notes section: “I can deal with whatever happens.” “It’s okay to make mistakes or do stupid things.” Younger kids who can read can carry a post-it note or index card in their backpack with the same helpful messages: “I am stronger than my worries.” “It’s okay if everything isn’t perfect.” If kids feel embarrassed about carrying around a note, they can carry a talisman that reminds them of their response. Maybe you and your child decide that owl stickers mean “I can handle challenging things.” Then she puts an owl sticker on her lunch bag, her homework folder, and her backpack.
Whether through stickers, index cards, phone notes, or imagination, encouraging your child to talk back to their anxiety empowers them and makes them active rather than passive.
Tip #3: Remind them that what revs up must slow down.
Worry comes with physical feelings: a pounding heart, lightheadedness, a flip-flop in the stomach. These feelings can amplify an already scary situation, like doing a math problem on the board, facing a cafeteria’s worth of rowdy kids, or getting called on unexpectedly in class. Uncomfortable sensations might make them think, “I’m going to throw up!” or “Something’s wrong with me!”
If physical sensations make your kid think something is horribly wrong, do some training. Bring on the symptoms on purpose in order to get used to them. Run up your stairs together to make your hearts pound, swing on the swings to feel a little dizzy, hang upside down from the monkey bars to feel the blood rush to your heads. Have them focus on the sensations–30 seconds to a minute should do it. Then, when you’re done, notice how quickly you both get back to feeling normal. Usually just a minute or two. Your kid will probably even bounce back before you.
Now, kids might say, “But that wasn’t scary–I only felt dizzy because we spun around a bunch.” To which you answer, “Yes, and when you feel this way before you read aloud in class, it’s just because you’re feeling anxious. It doesn’t mean you’re sick and have to go to the nurse. See how your dizzy feelings went away on their own pretty quickly after we stopped spinning? They’ll go away on their own during or after reading aloud, too.”
In short, teach them they don’t have to be afraid of their physical feelings. They’re uncomfortable, but it’s just anxiety–nothing more–and they go away pretty quickly.
Tip #4: Wean them off unhelpful rituals.
If your child has more pregame traditions than the most superstitious of major leaguers, or they can’t brush their teeth without turning the water on and off four times, it’s time for an experiment.
Suggest seeing what happens without the ritual. They will look at you as if you just suggested wearing their underwear over their pants. But gently persist. Be curious, not harsh. Acknowledge it feels wrong not to do the ritual, but if they insist that tapping their pencil seven times is the only way to make things turn out okay, encourage them to put their theory to the test. The tapping or counting or nodding or whatever may be getting the credit for maintaining calm and safety when they were handling their life just fine all along.
Now, if you are part of the ritual–for instance, if your child begs you to tuck them in exactly symmetrically or wash your shoes whenever you come in the house–bite the bullet and stop. Why? Because if you participate, you send the message that something bad will happen without the ritual. Inadvertently, you tell them that they need the ritual to get through the day–that they can’t handle things without it. Brace yourself for indignation and tears, but also be supportive. Understand that the ritual is important to them and that they will feel worse without it in the short term. But in the long term, it’s more important to learn that they’re safe and capable even without you saying “good night” in just the right tone of voice, or giving them exactly three hugs before they get on the school bus.
Tip #5: Hear them out.
In other words, for at least a few minutes a day, offer fewer directions, fewer suggestions, and less advice. In solidarity, parents will sometimes ask, “But what can I change to help my kid?” This is awesome. You certainly are not at fault for causing your kid’s anxiety, but offering to change some of your own behaviors can give you more power to alleviate it.
You certainly are not at fault for causing your kid’s anxiety, but offering to change some of your own behaviors can give you more power to alleviate it.
One way may be to listen to how you speak to your child. A huge percentage of our communication is telling our kids to do something, to stop doing something, or to help them do something. We give directions, suggestions, and advice. But if your kid is anxiety-prone, this can all come across as criticism.
And criticism pops up in unlikely places. Sometimes questions come across as criticism: “Don’t you want to start your homework?” “Why don’t you add some red Legos to your tower?” Teachable moments sound like a quiz: “Can you read that sign?” “What color is this?” Sometimes even compliments sound like criticisms: “Good work–we’re chipping away. We still have a long way to go, though.”
The solution isn’t to let kids run wild and directionless. You still need to run your household and make sure homework gets done, but for a few minutes a day, bite your tongue and let them take the lead. Think less pressure. Less direction. Less intensity. Just reflect what they’re saying and show that you’re listening. “What’s happening in this magic potion of yours?” is different than “Here, let’s add some baking soda to your potion.” Remember, they take the lead. “I’m excited to hear about your day,” is different than “What did you learn in school today?” For at least a few minutes, we’re not quizzing.
Reflect back what they’re saying rather than giving advice or solving their age-appropriate problem for them. “You sound nervous about school tomorrow,” may not feel like you’re doing anything, but you are: you’re showing that you hear them loud and clear, which is way different than, “There’s nothing to be nervous about.”
Anxiety often comes down to feeling incapable. So when you stop giving advice, giving direction, or offering suggestions for a few minutes and let them take the lead, they feel more capable and in control. Then you can go back to making sure they did their homework.
To sum it all up, anxiety is about uncertainty: Am I capable? Can I handle things? By working with them to prepare for and then face their fears, but stopping short of doing things for them, you build their certainty in their own confidence and capabilities. The result? A confident kid and, eventually, a confident adult.