“Oh no, I think my daughter has anxiety!” “Our son worries all the time, I don’t know what happened to our happy little guy!”
As concerned parents of children with anxiety, we want to help. But often our attempts are misguided because anxiety shows up differently for kids. So what are we doing wrong? In a quick word, nothing, parents are simply doing their best and their best helps a LOT, but here are some ways to make your best EVEN BETTER:
- Misstep: We are telling our children to take deep breaths. Instead: This is great advice but the concept of “taking a deep breath” can be confusing for kids. Often they will mistakingly take quick, shallow breaths which actually increases anxiety! Specify “long, slow, deep breaths” and model what that looks like, or practice together. You can even use a calming app or YouTube tutorial.
- Misstep: We say “it’s no big deal!”, “it will get better!”. Instead: We need to remember that what doesn’t seem like a big deal to us can strike panic in a child. For example, wearing shoes that don’t match their outfit or being left out of a dodge ball game can feel HUGE to a child (these are real-life examples here). Simply being there for them can mean the world. Show them your unconditional support “You are feeling a lot of pressure right now but I am here for you, however you need me, whenever you need me”.
- Misstep: We say “calm down!” Instead: Children would certainly calm down if they could, right? Often they simply just don’t know to relax. Show them how to relax by using techniques that work like Progressive Relaxation here and Grounding Exercises here.
- Misstep: We focus on on the problem and potential solutions. Instead: While there are certainly problems that need a solution, sometimes focusing on the problem just isn’t helping and here’s why: Anxiety feeds on being stuck in past and future. Why? Because this is where worry lives. Try to help your child to stay in the present moment, which is also called Mindfulness. It’s hard to worry when they aren’t thinking about the past or the future. Instead, slow them down, bring them back to the present, and remind them that they are 100% safe in the Here and Now.
- Misstep: We help our children with their anxiety only when they are anxious. Instead: Sprinkle relaxation throughout their day, everyday. Use the techniques outlined above in daily conversations. Tools such as relaxation, deep breathing, and mindfulness take practice, just like learning how to ride a bike or throw a baseball. And like learning any new skill, the more practice, the better.
- Misstep: We think our goal is to get rid of anxiety for our children. Instead: Focus on reducing anxiety. Anxiety actually originally came along to help out and just gets too excited along the way. Anxiety wants to prepare us for potential problems, or remind us of problems of the past so we never do that again. But if your child is simply reducing her anxiety, she is actually doing great!
And most importantly, remember to practice these techniques with them. You are modeling the the practice of anxiety management every day. So begin taking those long, slow, deep breaths together in the car, before the school day, or while relaxing on the couch. And maybe overall calmness and well-being will not only happen for your child, but for your whole family.