The fact is, as parents, we all WANT to help when our child is feeling anxious. We don’t like to see our child suffer and it can also be uncomfortable for everyone involved. Unfortunately, our natural instincts usually get it wrong when trying to help our child with their anxiety. We want the pain to go away quickly and because of that, we often intensify the anxiety instead of helping decrease it. Here are 4 tried-and-true practical things you can do that will actually help and diminish your child’s anxiety:
- First and foremost, label the feeling and empathize. Often, this is all the child is seeking and needs – to be validated in their thoughts and feelings about a situation. They also will grow in EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and maturity by learning to identify their feelings, name them, and discuss them.
“I see you are really nervous about the first day of school. First days of school can feel scary because there is so much unknown. What kind of unknowns are you feeling nervous about?”
The message you are sending is not that your child should not feel nervous or scared. You are saying it is okay and normal to feel this way. Thus, your child feels validated and more comfortable talking about his/her feelings with you.
- Reassure your child ONE time with empathy and then, do not continue to reassure. Once you have reassured your child, you can set boundaries on your child’s anxiety and need for constant reassurance. Parents often do not realize they are enabling their child’s anxiety by continuing to discuss and reassure. Your reassurance is rewarding your child’s questions and anxiety induced statements and encouraging them to continue.
“I know you are worried but I told you earlier this morning I would be there on time to pick you up at 4pm. I will not tell you again or discuss this anymore with you.”
- Set aside a time for worries. A “Worry Time” can be especially beneficial. You and your child agree not to discuss the worries throughout the day. Each evening you have a special 15-minute time period where he/she is allowed to express all their worries freely. This strategy helps your child to stop feeding their worries throughout the day and often results in them “forgetting” their worry by that evening when the appointed Worry Time comes around. In addition, the worries sometimes work themselves out throughout the day.
“Remember? It is not Worry Time. Save that thought for tonight and I will be happy to talk about it then.”
- In times of increased anxiety and panicky feelings, teach your child how to calm themselves by taking deep, slow breaths through their nose and out their mouth or by counting backwards from 100 (or 10 or 20 if they are a younger child). Counting, following step by step instructions, or organizing something uses the amygdala part of the brain and limbic system. When the amygdala is fully engaged, our brain cannot worry at the same time.
“I see you are feeling very anxious. Let’s take some deep breaths together and see if we can’t feel calmer and more in control of our emotions before we begin talking.”