A Family Therapist’s Best Tips for Helping the Anxious Child

Anxiety can be debilitating when children have yet to master healthy ways to cope. It strings along a myriad of other childhood problems if left unresolved: depression, attention-deficit, low self-esteem, conduct disorder, and many more. According to ChildMind Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York, we are dealing with an epidemic in our hands. In 2018, they reported that there are 17 million youth worldwide who have been diagnosed with Anxiety Disorders. Only 36% receive proper treatment. If you are a parent of an anxious child, then you know first hand how confusing this can become. 

But what about your child?

On one hand, you want to protect and save your child. Watching them suffer isn’t exactly what you signed up for. But on the other hand, you are unsure if removing them from situations that cause intense emotions is really the best option. While anxiety is such an individualized experience and no two people can describe it the same way, there are tools that can help you get started.

You may find that every day presents a different challenge with your anxious child. Some days they can finish their tasks without any promptings. Other days, they can’t explain where their motivation has gone. These ups and downs can cause tension in the household. It can place a strain on the parent-child relationship.

From the Desk of Joy Acaso:

As an Anxiety Support Coach and Family Therapist, I have worked with thousands of families over the last two decades. The following tips are a general framework that you can utilize if you have an anxious child at home.

  • Listen to your community but don’t rely on second-hand information. The support that you receive within your trusted circle is irreplaceable. Getting together with parents and adults who have dealt with similar situations as you is important. The best part is that they can normalize the challenges you face so that you don’t feel alone. Nonetheless, there exist reliable and credible experts on this subject matter as well. Every day, there’s up to date findings on new research because we want to beat this. Be sure to read books, listen to podcasts, attend workshops, discuss with a therapist or other professionals and take notes. 

 

  • Leave plenty of room to observe behavior patterns and don’t make the situation about you. Because irritability and defiance can accompany anxiety, the actions of an anxious child can easily be misconstrued as manipulation. The backtalk and negative attitude can cause a cycle of conflict. Your children may very well be manipulating his or her situation, but that is not always the case. Feelings and thoughts influence behaviors. Replace your own judgmental notions with the willingness to observe instead. Ask yourself: Has this happened before, when and where? What worked last time? How frequently do these behaviors show up? Is my child trying to communicate unmet needs? Am I in a good emotional and mental space to handle this at the moment or do I need to call for backup?

 

  • Evaluate the surrounding stress level but don’t remove stressors in their entirety. If there is a sure way to fire up anxiety, it is stress. When a child’s stress level goes up, anxiety increases. Avoidance is a mechanism that is most often used by children, and adults for that matter. They’ll tell you that they don’t want to go to school or attend a birthday party. They’ll put off their homework until the last minute or forget all about it on purpose. Having to push through the struggles can be very difficult. Children may automatically think there are only two choices: to do it or not. Life, as you know it, is a bit more complex than that. Not all stressors are harmful. In fact, many situations can help children develop motivation such as trying new things, learning different skills and meeting deadlines for goal setting. You don’t want to remove your children from all circumstances but you can guide them to achieve a balance. You can create a step by step plan with them in order to diminish the stress. Simple things like role-playing and scriptwriting make a difference.

 

  • Ask open-ended questions and don’t be too quick to fix the problem. It is imperative that you listen when your child shows signs of anxiety or talks to you about their feelings. At the moment that they’re experiencing anxiety, nothing else will soothe them for the first 90 seconds but your presence. You read it right – nothing. Once the emotion has moved through their body, which is what they need the 90 seconds for, stay with them and ask open-ended questions. You can say things like, “how are you feeling right now?”. Don’t force them to talk about anything but reassure them that when they are ready to say something, you’ll be there to listen. What can I do to help? Can I get anything for you that can soothe you? It is absolutely understandable that you want your child to feel better, but it is unnecessary to tell them that everything will be alright. You are offering them a false sense of hope if you lead them to think this. They may have more faith in you but they will never build faith in themselves if you keep fixing their emotions.

Overcoming anxiety is a day-by-day progress. Don’t assume that you know what your child is going through even if you have seen it before. Make it a priority to learn together.

I hope these tips give you a starting point on identifying and help to address your anxious child. There’s always hope to turn over a new leaf. If you have experienced success using these methods or any others not listed, please share them in the comments below. We love hearing from our mom community!

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