Anxiety is extremely common, and affects nearly 40 million adults and 1 in 8 children. As a parent, you might have noticed signs of anxiety in your child. Just because your child may suffer from anxiety doesn’t mean he or she can’t learn how to manage those feelings. There are plenty of parenting techniques that can help you respond to your child in a loving and supportive way, helping him or her to gain the tools necessary to manage anxiety.
Scaffold Anxiety-Inducing Tasks
It can be tempting to avoid any activities that cause your child to feel anxious, such as sports practice or a school field trip. However, while allowing a child to skip an event might make her feel better right now, it reinforces the anxiety. Avoiding the problem doesn’t help her learn coping methods for dealing with an anxious event.
Instead, work through the anxiety by scaffolding. Scaffolding breaks a learning moment into multiple steps and is commonly used by teachers to help students master a challenging task. You can implement this technique in parenting an anxious child by breaking up an anxiety-inducing event into multiple steps.
Let’s say Ellen is afraid of dogs. One day, you might watch dogs on TV. When Ellen becomes comfortable with this step, ask a friend with a known and trusted dog if you and Ellen can watch the dog play from outside a fenced in yard. Then, encourage Ellen to let the dog sniff her hand through the fence. Each step helps Ellen become more comfortable with her anxiety trigger, and teaches her that just because something is scary, it won’t necessarily hurt her.
I want to stress, however, that scaffolding doesn’t mean you should ignore reasonable fears. If your child is scared to go to school every day, talk to his teacher or evaluate whether or not it's time to switch schools. It’s important that you listen to your child and also your judgement to determine which fears are caused by anxiety, and which ones might need more investigating.
Maintain Neutrality When Talking to Your Child
It’s easy to accidentally reinforce anxiety in your child by responding to them in a way that compounds their fear of an anxiety trigger. For example, if Ellen tells you she’s afraid of dogs, any concerned parent might fire off a group of well-meaning questions: “Did a dog bite you? Are you sure nothing happened? Is there something you want to tell me?”
However, these kinds of leading questions can reinforce in Ellen’s mind that dogs are scary-- just the thought of them is getting her parent all upset! Instead, try asking neutral questions in a calm tone. When Ellen says, “I’m afraid of dogs!” Ask, “Why do you say that?” and then wait calmly for a response. By responding with a level-head, you’re not reinforcing the idea that dogs are scary.
Of course, it can take time to train yourself to respond with neutrality. We recommend this mindful parenting checklist to help keep you present and in the moment when responding to your child.
Help your Child Form a Plan
One common “don’t” when it comes to parenting an anxious child is “Don’t reassure them!” The reasoning behind this is that your reassurance will sound false; there often is reason to be anxious about things, and managing that anxiety is key to how well-adjusted adults respond to worries and fears.
Let’s say Carlos is afraid of going to camp. Ask him why. “What if Ashley is mean to me?” Well, what if? Help Carlos envision how he would respond to Ashley being mean to him. “What would you do if Ashley was mean?” you could ask. Carlos will hopefully respond, “I could tell my camp counselor.” By taking time to help Carlos think through possible issues and solutions, you’re showing him that he can control his anxiety by planning for the future.
You might have noticed that each of these tips requires you to invest more time in responding to your child. It’s definitely not easy! However, over time these strategies should become second nature, and more importantly, they will help your child learn to manage anxiety. You can go a step further by making sure your child’s whole community of care—co-parents, relatives, teachers, or activity leaders—is on board with managing anxiety in this way.
If you feel your school is not responsive to your concerns, research schools with special nurturing environments. There are many resources available to you as a parent, and the first step is to start exploring to see what your programs currently excel in or lack. We recently produced this free checklist to help parents determine if their student his achieving his or her best. Download it here to start your child's assessment.
Finally, this content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other medical professional when it comes to treating and diagnosing mental health issuesof your child.