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Published on June 24, 2022

How To Help Your Children With Anxiety (Do’s and Don’ts)

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How To Help Your Children With Anxiety (Do’s and Don’ts)

Anxiety to many is the all-encompassing term to describe being nervous, but for those with a specific anxiety disorder, it can be a debilitating fear of a thing or situation that does not pose a real threat.

The overuse of the word in our daily lives can make understanding the disorder confusing for our children and equally confusing for parents who try and mitigate the stress and strain they witness their child go through. This makes it harder for parents to learn how to help their children with anxiety.

Research suggests that 9.4% of children between 3 and 17 years old have been diagnosed with anxiety.[1] Unfortunately, family interactions can also increase anxiety if they feed into anxious thought patterns.

So, what are the key do’s and don’ts for helping your child with anxiety?

How to Help Your Children With Anxiety

1. Don’t Reason. Do Grounding Techniques

When your little one is in the midst of an anxiety attack, the symptoms will influence their thoughts, making fear seem even more reasonable. One of the best ways to reduce symptoms so that you can begin to overcome the fear is through grounding techniques.

Techniques you can try are sucking a sour-sweet candy, 33×3 technique[2] where the child must name three sounds, sights, and smells, or aromatherapy.

Research suggests sucking a sour-sweet is a great grounding technique that allows the child to direct attention away from anxiety symptoms at the moment by focusing on something else.[3]

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This is different from avoiding because it helps your child face fears by focusing their attention on other sensations and can then help them push themselves to face fears and manage anxiety.

2. Don’t Avoid. Do Support

As a parent, you are driven to protect your child from harm. So when seeing your little one experience extreme distress, it is only natural to want to provide them with short-term relief by allowing them to avoid the situation frightening them.

Some ways in which we might do this are speaking for our children in social settings, allowing them to sleep in the bed with us, or permitting them to skip school and social situations. These provide short-term relief but could only make your child’s anxiety worse in the long run.

What you can do instead is create a plan to approach anxiety-related things or situations and support your child to get through them.

Outlining gradual steps towards facing your child’s fear should diminish extreme distress while still facing and overcoming their fears. Support here could come from encouraging words and love, seeing a psychologist, and speaking with the child’s educators.[4]

It is also important to make sure your child knows that you have confidence in their abilities. Allowing them to make their own decisions, even if they are small, is an important step in communicating that you have confidence in your child.

Saying things like, “I can hear that you are scared, but I am with you, and I know you can get through this,” are also a great way to ensure that your child believes they can face their fears and uncertainty.

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3. Don’t Become Stressed. Do Stay Calm

A great strength of a good parent is being in tune with their child. However, when it comes to handling your child’s anxiety, this can also be a major drawback.

A parent’s reaction to a child’s anxiety is to often become stressed and anxious themselves, which will only exacerbate the situation.[5]

The ability to remain calm and handle your stress is arguably the best thing you can do, especially when your child is in the middle of an anxiety attack. This not only demonstrates to your child how to manage their stress, but it will also help ease their fears and instill confidence in their ability to face them.

Finally, resisting stress and remaining calm could also help you think clearer and make more thoughtful decisions on how to best support your child.

4. Don’t Empower Feelings. Do Respect Them

A common misconception is that validation means agreement, but this is not always the case. You can understand and empathize with your child’s experience of fear without belittling or disregarding them.

For instance, if your child has health anxiety and is afraid they have an illness you know they don’t have, you probably won’t want to amplify these feelings by agreeing with them, but you also won’t want to belittle their feelings, causing more anxiety.

Instead, listen and be empathic while helping them understand what they’re anxious about, encouraging them to feel like they can face their fears.

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Phrases that might be helpful for your child to hear could include: “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.” This helps the child feel understood and know that they are not alone.

5. Don’t Ask Leading Questions. Do Think It Through

While this may seem contradictory, asking leading questions can often continue the anxiety cycle. It is better to ask open-ended questions or talk worries through with your child as this allows them to still talk about their feelings without giving power and control to the fear.

For example, instead of asking, “Are you anxious about failing your test?” Try to instead ask them how they are feeling about the test or even how they are feeling in general. Here, they are in control of their feelings.

Another great way to take power away from anxiety is to think things through.

For example, if your child is afraid that a stranger might be sent to pick them up, you can ask your child that if this does happen, they can express their fears of abandonment.

You can then both work together to come up with a solution like having a special code to give anyone that picks the child up, taking away the risk and fear. Here, having a plan is a way for your child to reduce uncertainty effectively.

6. Don’t Restrict. Do Eat a Balanced Diet

What you eat impacts your mental health, and when it comes to managing anxiety, supporting your child’s nutritional needs could make a huge difference in the severity of anxiety symptoms. Vitamins such as magnesium and omega-3 are great for balancing mood, jitteriness, and nervousness.[6]

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When it comes to hormones and food, serotonin is mainly produced and absorbed in the gut, and it is also one of the major hormones responsible for the severity of anxiety symptoms. You can support serotonin absorption by eating lots of fish, oats, and dairy products.

You should also encourage your child to exercise as this will not only help mediate anxiety symptoms but will also increase the production of serotonin.

7. Don’t Go With the Flow. Do Establish a Routine

As anxiety is often driven by the feeling of uncertainty, a great way to combat this is to create a routine to bring predictability and certainty into the anxious child’s life.

You can do this by having the same wake-up, nap, meal, play, homework, and family times every day. That way, the child knows what to expect and allows them to feel like their environment is safe.[7]

Having a routine could also keep anticipatory periods short and minimize feelings of impending doom in the child. If you know your child is anxious about visiting the doctor and getting their shots, you can schedule the visit right after playtime, reducing the child’s need to repetitively think about what could go wrong.

This sense of predictability should also help the child focus on certain things at home like TV time or dinner time and overcome their fears. (Autism Parenting Magazine: Anxiety and Autism: Best Ways to Relieve the Effects of Anxiety)

Final Thoughts

While anxiety is not something you can ever eliminate, finding ways to manage it and reduce its severity is crucial in supporting your child’s wellbeing.

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While short-term relief often seems like the best go-to, it might be detrimental in the long run. Instead, by giving your child grounding tools, teaching them to have a balanced diet and stay active, and showing them how to challenge their thoughts, you’re giving them powerful tools to overcome their anxiety for life.

Featured photo credit: Annie Spratt via unsplash.com

Reference

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Emily Ansell Elfer

Editor of Autism Parenting Magazine

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