Helping Your Anxious Child
Does your child struggle with anxiety? Do you find yourself consistently changing your daily routine to help them feel better? Do their fears keep your family from engaging in life in the ways you might hope? In this article, Amanda Mills, LCSW-S provides information to help you identify anxiety and address it as a parent.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety comes from the natural danger detection system we are born with, which alerts us to threatening situations and helps us respond to them. However, when we have an anxiety disorder, our danger detection system becomes overactive, alerting our body to danger even when there is none. This may look like excessive worrying, indecisiveness, irritability, difficulty sleeping, rapid heartbeat, or frequent stomachaches.
When our overactive alert system senses something dangerous, we may end up avoiding the situation that triggered the anxiety. That becomes a problem when the situation is necessary for daily life. While it feels intuitive to listen to the anxiety, letting it drive our decisions strengthens our avoidance and prevents us from finding out that we can survive both the situation and the anxious feelings it brings up.
How Can Parents Help Kids with Anxiety?
Regulating our feelings, including anxiety, can be an interpersonal process. As humans, we feed off the energy of the people we spend time around, and if we’re connecting with someone who is calm, it will help calm us, as well. This is especially true for children, who often rely on their parents to manage their anxiety. While a parent is not to blame for their child’s anxiety, and it makes intuitive sense to try to help them avoid it, it is not the most effective way to assist them. If the child never faces triggers for their anxiety, their fear is reinforced, and they never develop skills to tolerate their anxiety or learn that they can make it through challenging situations.
Many times, children with anxiety rely on their parents to help them avoid these challenges, which is what Dr. Eli Lebowitz of the Yale Child Study Center calls ‘family accommodations.’ Family accommodations might be doing things for an anxious child, avoiding doing things that seem to trigger the child, or changing the daily routine in various ways to protect them from anxiety. Perhaps your child struggles with being left alone, going to school in the morning, or falling asleep in their own bed, so you adjust your behavior to prevent them being in those situations. Shifting these types of family accommodations can help the anxious child build their confidence and ability to face difficult things, while also improving the family’s ability to function and move through their daily routine.
What is Supportive Parenting?
Many parents experience some tension between wanting to reassure their child and wanting to help them become self-sufficient. This can lead to inconsistent parental messages or behaviors. However, research shows that combining the elements of validation and confidence can help a child withstand more anxiety. This combination is called ‘supportive parenting.’ It integrates accepting a child’s emotions and internal experience with letting them know they have the ability to face their fears and that you as the parent will be there for them as they do that.
If parents can identify how and where they are facilitating their child’s avoidance of anxiety, they can start to purposely change their behaviors to give their child more chances to self-regulate and build their confidence. This does not require changing the child’s behaviors or getting rid of the anxiety. Instead, it means that parents acknowledge and validate the child’s fears and then empower the child to manage it by setting personal boundaries and making intentional plans ahead of time for what their child experiences as anxiety-inducing situations. This can be done in partnership with a therapist or outside of therapy.
Can Therapy Help My Child Feel Less Anxious?
Children with anxiety can benefit from individual treatment using a model like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). There are also treatment models that focus on the parents and helping them reduce accommodations, such as Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE). If parents are also affected by their own anxiety, it can be helpful for them to work with an individual therapist as well. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that parents of anxious children are not alone and that you deserve support.