Worried about your anxious child? Learn useful techniques to ease anxiety in children you can apply immediately at home.
Anxiety. I tell myself everyone deals with the emotion to varying degrees, including my kids. Handling anxiety in children can be a challenge because they’re still learning how to cope with difficult emotions.
Anxiety can happen any time, but common culprits include a change of plans. Your child might throw a fit because you have to leave the playground sooner than expected.
A new environment and meeting new people can also trigger his anxiety and send him clinging to your leg. And a disruption of routine could make him feel anxious. For instance, not having his lovey before nap time leads to a vicious tantrum.
To make matters worse, being supportive and calm can be difficult when our kids are anxious. We forget to put ourselves in their shoes, frustrated at their inability to manage their feelings. We’re less patient of the difficulties they experience, and want them to “snap out of it” already.
Useful techniques for anxiety in children
Anxiety in children is common, but sometimes if left unchecked, can worsen the situation. What can we do to help?
I’ve learned a few techniques that have guided me each time I notice anxiety rising in my kids. These tips remind me that anxiety is normal—however frustrating—and also manageable. My kids now know how to manage their feelings better instead of diving headfirst into anxiety.
Let’s take a look at how to help them do that:
1. Acknowledge and relate to your child’s anxieties
Anxiety in children is made worse when we don’t take their emotions seriously. We brush it off, figuring it’s petty to be afraid or anxious about it. We’re impatient that they still throw tantrums or make life difficult for us. Sometimes we even wonder how our personalities could be so different.
Here’s where empathy and compassion play a huge role in managing anxiety. Rather than wave your child’s fears away, acknowledge the emotion and what may have caused it. Tell a story of how you’ve felt the same way and how you managed.
Not only do you reassure him that his feelings are normal, you’re also letting him know that you felt something similar as well. Acknowledging his feelings doesn’t encourage him to keep feeling anxious. It actually lessens his anxiety when he knows you’re on his side.
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2. Don’t avoid the experiences that triggered anxiety
Let’s say you put your toddler on the slide for the first time. You expected him to feel thrilled and exhilarated, but instead, he’s terrified of going down again. After his meltdown, it’s tempting to vow never to place him on another slide ever again. Why bother, you think, when he’ll just freak out every time?
But don’t completely avoid the experiences that triggered his fears and anxieties. Doing so lets his fear “win” and teaches him to deal with his anxieties through avoidance. This only reinforces his anxiety and confirms his suspicions that he should avoid slides so he doesn’t feel afraid again.
Instead of avoiding the triggers, help him find a better way to face or manage them.
I don’t suggest putting him on a slide every day until he “gets over it.” That uses fear and doesn’t respect his genuine feelings. But try a gradual approach: introduce the slide a few weeks later and see how he handles it then.
3. Describe what your child can expect
Set expectations so your child feels more prepared for what’s ahead. Even with a new environment, your preparation can help him anticipate and relate what he experiences to what you’d told him earlier.
Let’s say he’s going to an event he’s never attended. Let him know who’ll be there, what the activities are, and when you can expect to leave. Maybe he’s about to start a new summer camp, art classes, or even taking photos with Santa. Describe what he might expect to see and do.
You might review the summer camp agenda and remind him what time you’ll pick him up. You can describe the awesome activities he’ll do at art classes, or that he’ll see Santa and take a quick photo with him.
Having expectations reassures him because the events won’t come as too much of a surprise.
4. Have your child practice coping methods
How can you teach your child to face his anxieties? Help him practice coping methods.
Let’s say you’re hosting a family party (at least after this pandemic is over!). Your child might face new people, and some of these adults can even be overwhelming (think aunts who demand kisses and uncles who tease).
You can say, “You can go to your room when it feels like too many people are out here, okay?” Suggest other ways he can cope with his feelings, from carrying his favorite teddy bear to finding a quiet space for himself.
And be mindful of his signals. When you see him not enjoying himself, lead him to a quiet space so he can catch a break. You’re helping him build confidence in his ability to cope. As scary or unpleasant as these feelings might be, he’ll come to learn that he has the ability to manage them.
5. Reassure your child and follow through consistently
One common emotion your child might feel is separation anxiety, the distress from being apart from you. Separation anxiety can even a sign of a healthy parent-child relationship, but dealing with his behavior can be difficult.
He needs your reassurance—and follow through—to keep his fears at bay.
Let’s say he’s starting preschool and is struggling with the transition of being away from you, developing stranger anxiety.
Reassure him that you’ll pick him up right after school, even giving him a time he can count on such as 3pm or after snack time. Then, follow through consistently, sticking to a regular routine so he can count on you always picking him up at that time.
At social gatherings, stay nearby. Wandering off to chat with your cousins isn’t going to help his anxieties. Keep him close by until he warms up enough to his new environment.
6. Don’t instill unnecessary fear or anxiety
Are you scared of spiders? Watch your reaction when you see one in front of your child. Shrieking in fear sends the message that spiders are terrible and feared.
Or let’s say you’re outside with him and a person walking their dog is approaching. Assuming the dog is under control, you don’t need to shield him from every dog as if it’s ready to bite. Instead, say, “Look at the cute dog!” and phrase it in a positive way.
Let’s say the dog is too feisty or the owner isn’t a “pack leader.” Pick up your child or step in front of him while remaining friendly to the dog and dog owner. An overreaction teaches him to feel scared instead of discerning, curious, or brave.
7. Advocate and stand up for your child
Social settings can be one of the most difficult challenges for an anxious child. While you don’t want to hover, step in when you see family and friends overwhelming her.
Maybe an uncle is playing too rough, or your friends are clamoring to talk to her or give her a hug. Establish space to help her adjust to this new environment and warm up to others.
And don’t force her to hug everyone—it violates her personal space and can make her more anxious.
8. Praise your child for handling anxiety
Praising positive behavior is far more effective than correcting negative ones. Find moments when you notice your child behaving in a positive way and acknowledge him for his choices.
This is especially encouraging when your praise is unexpected and unplanned. You’re simply noticing the ways he’s already doing a great job.
And praise him for even the smallest of progress! Maybe he finally jumped into the pool (or even dipped his toe in the water). Or you noticed he got his teddy bear when his siblings got too overwhelming. Praising him for ways he manages anxiety encourages that behavior to keep going.
9. Be patient when your child doesn’t meet your expectations
It can be frustrating when it seems like your child is the only one who doesn’t do X, Y and Z. He’s afraid of this and that when other kids can’t stop talking about it.
Remind yourself that every child is different. Just because many kids enjoy going down the slide doesn’t mean everyone does. Instead, think of the things your child has braved that other kids would shy away from.
Then, remember that even kids who seem to brave everything also have their own quirks and fears as well. They might shy away from meeting new people, or can’t seem to calm down from a panic attack. You won’t always know this about other kids, and it’s easy to assume yours is the only one with anxieties.
Accept him for who he is, with the hope that he can grow the coping skills necessary to overcome his anxieties. Be realistic about your own expectations as well. Keep his temperament in mind—shopping for five hours with strangers can take a toll on him.
And never withhold your love or attention as a form of erasing his anxiety.
Children don’t need much in this world, but love is one of them. Withholding affection is not an effective way of teaching him not to be afraid, but rather does the opposite. It lets the anxiety win when it’s powerful enough to make mom and dad upset.
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We all have our fears and quirks, our anxieties and apprehensions. Children haven’t had the same practice we’ve had to reassure themselves everything will be all right. As children inexperienced with the world, they face more new experiences than we do.
Help him cope with his feelings by acknowledging them as normal and manageable. Don’t avoid his triggers, or instill unnecessary fears. Let him know what he might expect in new environments, and practice coping methods beforehand.
Follow through with your word consistently for reassurance, and advocate for him should you need to. Praise him for the times he does make progress, and finally, be patient with him when he doesn’t meet your expectations.
Anxiety in children is common, but now you have the tools to help your child cope in a positive and compassionate way.
p.s. Check out I Can Handle It by Laurie Wright, a fantastic children’s book to help your child overcome everyday anxieties:
Get more tips about dealing with your child’s anxiety:
- 10 Children’s Books about Separation Anxiety
- How to Gently Handle Separation Anxiety in Babies
- What You Should Know about Separation Anxiety
- 6 Useful Back to School Tips for Parents and Kids
- How to Deal when Your Child Cries at Drop Off
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