Helping Your Child with Anxiety

Helping Your Child with Anxiety

By Sarah Grayce, MD and Emily Hardcastle, LCSW 

Child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist at the Nashville Child and Family Wellness Center

In uncertain times like these, many kids (and parents) are experiencing more stress and worry. Sometimes that anxiety is manageable, and sometimes it gets to the point where it gets in the way for kids. It may present with an inability to stay calm, keeping them awake at night, or anything in between.  As a parent it can be really hard to see your child in distress. The good news is that there are many ways to help your child with big emotions. Here are some tips and things to keep in mind when your child is experiencing a lot of anxiety:

Validate their emotions

The most important thing to do is to validate your child’s emotion when they are in distress. Validation is a way of saying “I hear you; I acknowledge your distress.” You can validate their emotion by labeling it (for example, “I understand that you feel scared”) and reflecting back what they are saying. Then pause and allow your child to explain what’s going on in their mind. Let them get it all out before you start giving advice or problem-solving. As parents we want to jump in and start telling kids what they should do or why they should not feel the way they feel, but sometimes we are shutting them down by doing that. Validation doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them or approve of a behavior, but it does show that you are present to help hold and work through those difficult emotions.

Timing is everything

When someone is anxious, their brain can go into “fight or flight” mode. You may have noticed that there are times that your child feels so anxious that it’s hard for you to reason with them. That’s because the emotional centers of their brain have taken over and they can’t access the more rational parts of their brain. When they are in fight or flight mode, they may not be able to have a rational conversation about their worry. In these moments, it’s more helpful to help them engage in more physical coping skills. These can include:

-Paced breathing (breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, breathing in for 3 seconds and out for 3 seconds)

-Apply cold temperature (applying cool water to their face or have them hold ice cubes)

-Another physically engaging or tactile activity they enjoy (taking a shower, taking a walk, doing jumping jacks, or holding something they can squeeze, for example)

Once the intensity of the anxiety has decreased, you can begin to use more cognitive strategies, like helping talk them through solving the problem at hand.

Avoid avoiding

When a child is facing an anxious situation, they often want to avoid it, and your parental instinct is likely to protect them from the anxiety provoking event. Sometimes this protective instinct can lead to stopping kids from experiencing anxiety provoking events altogether, which can actually be counterproductive. Obviously we want to and should protect our children from danger and harm, but experiencing some anxiety actually helps kids learn to overcome it, especially if that anxiety is getting in the way of doing things they need or want to do. For example, if your child feels that learning to ride a bike is too stressful and avoids the situation altogether, their brain learns that the only way to feel better is to avoid riding a bike. However, if they face the fear and learn to ride with your calm guidance, likely the experience will not be as stressful as they predicted. Their brain then learns that there is another way to feel better other than avoiding and that anxiety can be worked through. This can be hard, but encouraging your child to experience distress actually helps them adapt and feel less distress.

Build resiliency

Creating a healthy environment for your child at home is a great way to reduce a child’s anxiety. Ways to create this environment include:

-Encouraging good self-care: It may seem overly simple but adequate sleep, a balanced diet, and regular exercise are the foundation of mental well-being. Try to have kids engaged in 20-30 minutes of physical activity (something active that gets their heart rate up) most days, and have a goal of getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep.

-Maintain consistency and structure at home: This is a hard one right now with everyone at home and parents pulled in so many directions. Even if it’s not perfect, keeping your kids on a similar daily routine can help create a sense of calm and normalcy, even when life isn’t normal.

-Engage in pleasant activities: Set aside time to engage in activities with your kids and schedule in or encourage kids to engage in activities they like to do.

-Encourage relaxation activities: Help your child learn skills that they can use to relax their brain and body by making relaxation part of their routine. This could be regularly practicing a mindfulness exercise or deep breathing together before bed, or trying some gentle yoga or meditation.

-Modeling good self-care: It’s also important for parents to model all of these skills for kids. Create balance and set limits in your own life and set an example for healthy habits. Most importantly model being kind to yourself and giving yourself grace when things don’t go as planned. No one is a perfect parent, especially during these times, and that’s ok.  Modeling “I am a good person, and sometimes I make mistakes” shows kids that it is possible to work through tough things.

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