3 Ways to Help your child with anxiety
All parents have experience dealing with an anxious child from time to time. But for children that require “more” due to a learning disability, giftedness, being twice exceptional (2e), having special needs, a disorder, or trauma, child anxiety can take on its own life and even rule the roost.
If you are dealing with a child that experiences high anxiety you know it can be very taxing on you as a parent or caregiver. Children deal with it in several different ways, asking what ifs constantly, catastrophizing, and becoming very rigid and controlling, just to name a few.
So how can you as a parent or caregiver help your child with anxiety?
Here are 3 tools to start using now to help your child with anxiety.
1. Help your child feel safe
Anxiety lives in the brain and in the imagination of a child. So it is not surprising that children who’s brains are wired differently tend to experience anxiety more intensely and at a higher rate than other children. “More” kids are wired for anxiousness.
Because of a child’s anxiety, they may avoid trying things or doing things. This is because new does not feel safe. New is less predictable. All children find safety and comfort in routines and predictability, but this is especially true of our "more" kids who are neurodiverse or have experienced trauma or loss. So if we want our “more” kids to let go of their rigidity and control that stems from anxiety they must first feel safe in their environment.
So how do we do this?
Use baby steps to show your child success and address their fears. Maybe your child meltdowns at the mere thought of getting on the school bus. So start with something small, like simply driving past the bus stop. Then once your child seems fine with that, stop at the bus stop and let your child watch the bus go by. Next have your child get out of the car and watch the bus go by (make sure you wave the bus by or have a quick talk with the bus driver to let them know that you are just practicing and that your child will need some more time before they will ride the bus). After that have your child practice standing at the bus stop and watching the bus go by. And finally have your child get on the bus.
It takes time, practicing each step several times until the child can remain calm. And depending on your child’s anxiety level, they may go faster or slower with the steps.
Provide encouragement and excitement as they do each step, especially if they were uncomfortable doing it. Also, talk to them about their progress as they continue to build up their stamina. It’s all about showing them what they can do and that they will be okay. The important thing is to keep them moving forward, even if it is uncomfortable and slow.
You can also use positive language toward your child while acknowledging their anxiety. Say things like ‘I get it. This is really scary for you. And I believe you can handle this’. If you show your child you believe in them, they will start to believe in themselves.
2. Pull back on accommodations and practice coping instead
Almost every single parent or caregiver who loves a child with anxiety knows their triggers. You know what situation is likely to make your child spin into an anxious meltdown and so you make changes and accommodations to avoid these meltdowns. And you are quite loving to do it, but you may actually be making it harder for your child to learn how to cope effectively with their anxiety.
You might be wondering why accommodations are bad, after all they can save you from major meltdowns. But what accommodations actually can do is make home or being with a parent feel like the only safe place, actually increasing a child’s anxiety about the outside world because the contrast between the known and the unknown is so different.
For our “more” kids, anxiety is a part of them. Remember I said it was hardwired into their brain? This means that they will most likely always struggle with anxiety their entire life, but you can help them struggle less and learn to cope better when you ditch the accommodations.
Does that mean we immediately throw out all of the accommodations our child with anxiety has become dependent upon? Absolutely not! That would be a monumental meltdown no parent or child should have to experience.
What it means is you should begin to think about how you can start scaling back your accommodations to make your child stretch their ability to handle their anxiety in order to grow in their capacity to handle situations. This may be painful for all involved in the beginning, but if you can stick with it consistently for a few weeks it will have long term results.
To start, choose one very specific situation which causes your child to become filled with anxiety. A common one is needing to talk to someone they don’t know well (like a restaurant worker, sales person, librarian, etc.). So maybe if you would normally be the one to place your child’s order at a restaurant you give your child advanced warning that you will no longer be doing this, that you believe they are capable of this task and even offer to have a few practice conversations with them, where you pretend to be the wait staff. Then take them to a restaurant and remind them it is their responsibility to order for themselves, if they choose not to order then they simply will have to wait to eat until they get home.
Will your child possibly go hungry for an hour? Yes, possibly. Will your child have a meltdown in public and make you uncomfortable and embarrassed? Yes, possibly. But keep your eye on the prize. You are stretching your child so they can succeed and function in life independent of you.
For our “more” kids, they naturally have to work harder to learn and master their coping skills. Reassure your child you believe they can do this. Tell them they will be okay even if they are scared and uncomfortable. And while you are at it, tell that to yourself.
3. Reframe your child’s anxiety
So often we view anxiety as a bad thing, something to be avoided or something we need to get rid of. But in reality, anxiety itself is not bad for us. It stems from a part of the brain that is trying to keep us safe, which is a good thing if we are actually in a situation where we could be in danger. It just sometimes gets a little overexcited and views everything as a threat and for our “more” kids that can create an overwhelming combination for child and parent alike.
As I said before, our “more” kids are hard-wired to be predisposed for anxiety. This means “getting rid” of anxiety is not likely, so instead we must reframe how our child views their anxiety.
To do this, start by talking to your child about worry’s “job”. When talking to kids, it can be helpful to give worry a persona, turn it into a character (yes, this even works for teens), that your child can picture in their head or even draw out on paper. Explain how worry’s job is to keep them safe and to help point out when things don’t seem safe.
Next, explain to your child that sometimes worry gets overexcited and starts pointing to everything and saying it is a danger, but that your child has the power to help keep worry from getting too carried away.
Now help your child create a written plan for a specific situation, either with words or pictures, where your child shows how they will solve the problem for their ‘what if’ worries.
Once your child can see the various solutions to their problems give your child the language to tell worry ‘it’s not that bad, I can handle this’ or ‘I know you are scared, but I know I can do this’ or even ‘I know you are trying to help, but I am going to be fine’.
Two things are at work here.
One, kids are learning how to recognize their worry is sometimes not accurate and how to provide their brain solutions ahead of time so problem solving becomes more automatic.
Two, research shows I statements and positive affirmations can have a significant effect on attitudes, actions and behaviors.
Your child’s anxiety can feel overwhelming to both you and your child and while you may not be able to get rid of their anxiety you can take significant steps to lessen the impact of anxiety in their lives. Your “more” child has the tools they need, but they need to practice them a lot and they need your support and guidance to give them confidence that they will be okay.
Now it’s time for action! Pick one of the above tools and commit to using it with your child consistently for the next 4 weeks and see the impact it can have on your child’s anxiety.