As children grow, they engage in exploration and learning that challenges them to become increasingly independent. This can be a simultaneously exciting and frightening process. An anxious child may feel afraid to leave Mom or Dad’s side on the first day of preschool, nervous to take that initial jump into the deep end of the pool, fearful of the unfamiliar.
When these feelings are met with empathy and encouragement, most children discover that they can endure situations that scare them and get first-hand knowledge of what it is to be brave.
Overcoming anxiety is not always that simple, however. Genes and brain wiring influence anxiety. So do a child’s personality and environment. For instance, kids who are more sensitive to stimuli like noise will naturally feel uneasy in loud environments. Anxiety can also be learned or adopted from family members, especially parents, who are fearful themselves.
Of course, parenting itself is an anxiety-provoking experience. It can be painful to imagine your child harmed or hurt, and even worse to witness it. Making mistakes can cause upset and injuring a limb can lead to a broken bone. However, mistakes are excellent opportunities for learning. Being upset can motivate new behaviors and with the right care, broken bones tend to fuse into stronger versions of what they were before. So, obstacles are not only inevitable, they are necessary for growth.
Parents can help their children manage anxiety and develop life-long coping in the following ways.
1. Practice optimism and model confidence.
Be mindful of what you communicate to your children through your words, voice tone and body language. Children will learn to view the world as a safe or dangerous place depending on how you see it. When anxious parents are able to effectively manage their anxiety, anxious children can do the same.
2. Prepare for the new and keep anticipation brief.
Preparation is important for any new experience, and especially for anxious children. When a child is fearful about a new person or place, it can be helpful to show them photos of what to expect so that a new experience is not as foreign. When possible, arrange for visits to preview new settings and meet new people. But don’t spend too much time preparing for what’s ahead. Anxious children usually do better when there is a brief period of anticipation rather than a long, drawn-out period preceding a daunting event.
3. Give kids the language to name their experiences.
Keeping in mind the level of understanding your child has achieved, explain things to them carefully so that they can feel less burdened by negative experiences. While it is suggested to start by asking them about their thoughts and feelings, young children will often need to be given language to describe difficult emotions. Parents can say, “That was scary!” or “I felt afraid” when they recognize these sentiments in their children. Kids can also draw pictures of fear and then brainstorm ways to beat it.
4. Do not avoid and provide gradual exposure.
Avoiding situations that cause a child to feel anxious is not suggested as this simply postpones anxiety. It is reasonable to slowly expose your child to what they fear using a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ approach.
5. Hold your child’s distress without taking it on.
Anxiety is rarely rational. A child who is terrified of insects will not experience comfort upon learning that very few insects are dangerous. Parents should kindly acknowledge a child’s fear and provide comfort, being sure not to allow their own stress level to rise.
6. Use cool tools to promote calming.
Children need to learn strategies to cope with anxiety. Some may find comfort in a special spot in the home that they can adorn with a favorite blanket, stuffed animal and picture. Creating a container of calming tools also works well for many kids. “Cool tools” can include invisibility sunglasses for children with social anxiety, earplugs for kids who fear loud noises, an I Spy book or beading activity for distraction. Allow children to exercise creativity by coming up with their own calming strategies too.
Makenzie Wesner, N.P. is a Behavioral and Developmental Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at the Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, California.