Effective Strategies to Support Your Child with Anxiety
Parents have a natural inclination to take care of, protect, and nurture their children. When you see your child overwhelmed with distress, it is natural for your parenting instincts to kick in. Do you find yourself becoming more intrusive, involved, protective, or controlling when your child becomes anxious? As you will see, your parenting instincts may not be helping the situation. In fact, they may be reinforcing your child's anxiety and making things worse. Why is this? When you move in to protect your child from feeling distress, you are giving them the implicit message that they cannot handle things. You are unintentionally taking away valuable learning opportunities for them to learn how to tolerate distress and grow from it.
There is no doubt that you want what's best for your child. And seeing them in distress is never easy. But what your child needs from you is not shelter from discomfort. What they need is your consistent support to help them develop courage and a "can do" attitude. When they are willing to be uncomfortable, they can learn how to problem-solve, persist, adapt, and recover from challenges as they arise. This is the path toward increasing your child's sense of empowerment, independence, and resilience.
Before we talk about the "dos" of parenting and helpful ways to support your child to manage their anxiety, let's review the "don'ts" (adapted from the book 'Anxious Kids Anxious Parents').
Don't rescue or overprotect your child from their fears or distress
Don't provide certainty about outcomes because the future is unpredictable
Don't reassure your child that everything will be okay because we can't know that
Don't accommodate/ask others to accommodate your child's anxiety
Don't model your own anxious behaviour
excessive worry or fear
the idea that the world is dangerous and we have little control over our outcomes
Don't push your child too hard or become angry or explosive yourself. Children who feel overwhelmed will react because they lack the skills to effectively manage their emotions.
Now that you've identified what to stop doing with your child, let's explore effective strategies you can implement when supporting your child to manage their anxiety. Here is a list of "dos" to try out with your child as you support them to face their fears.
Invest in self-care. Confronting anxiety is hard work. Make sure that you and your child are getting your needs met on a daily basis (e.g., nutrition, sleep, exercise, social connection, fun, rest, etc.).
Strengthen your relationship. Make time to connect with your child in ways that promote their attachment, comfort, and safety with you. Demonstrate lots of patience, understanding, and compassion with them - anxiety can really test children and parents alike. Let your child know you see their struggle and are on their side to support them to do well.
Model calm authority. The first step in supporting your child to manage their anxiety is for you to know how to manage yours. Your state of being is contagious. Refrain from joining your child in their chaos and instead invite them to join you in your state of calm. Try apps like Calm and Headspace to promote mindfulness.
Allow your child to experience distress. Your child must experience anxiety to learn how to manage their anxiety. Practice is key to skill development.
Be patient, supportive, and encouraging. Communicate your confidence in your child's ability to handle things. Stay positive. Expect your child's anxiety to flare up before it evens out. The first time they step into their fears, they will not like it. Recognize that when your child feels distressed, this is where their potential for growth lies. Challenge yourself not to take your child's reactive behaviours personally.
Listen to your child and validate their struggle. Children who feel heard are more likely to feel calm, listen, and follow your lead. Help your child make sense of what is happening to them in a helpful way (e.g., you are feeling tense and scared, your body is hot and shaky, your anxiety is trying to convince you that something bad will happen and you won't be able to handle it, we don't know what will happen, let's keep an open mind, we will figure things out together, I am here and we can handle whatever comes our way, let's focus on right now).
Explore your child's anxiety with them. In moments of calm, talk with your child about their anxiety as separate from who they are (e.g., when does your worry show up, what does it want for you, what has it taken away from you, what does it get in the way of, what do you want for yourself, how have you challenged your worry in the past, how can we work together to get control back over your worry). Some children naturally lean into imagination and can visualize their worry like a monster or a character. If this is your child, get out some markers and be creative with them - draw, characterize, and give a name to their worry so they know what they are working to manage. When we demystify our struggle, we can get a better handle on it.
Practice coping strategies together. Remember that we don't want to take away distress or guarantee outcomes. Let your child know that not all strategies are equally effective across all situations. Resilience is about having many strategies on hand and being flexible to try different strategies when one doesn't work to find one that does. Coping strategies include:
deep breathing (for young kids, see this video on 4-7-8 breathing)
going for a walk
finding a quiet space
using your 5 senses to ground (you can try a technique called 54321 grounding)
rhythmic and receptive movement (e.g., swaying, rocking, jump rope, trampoline, walking, running, stretching)
letting it out (e.g., screaming, laughing, crying, sighing, hitting a pillow)
muscle relaxation exercises (you can try this script)
body scan (to learn more, see this article)
mindful noticing of the moment (e.g., what do you notice about your thoughts, feelings, sensations, environment, urges)
positive self-talk or self-affirming statements
journaling or letter writing
drawing or doodling or coloring (you can try these mandala coloring sheets)
watching a show
listening to music
having a drink or snack
helping someone out (e.g., doing a kind deed)
Connect with others. Some children like to talk things out with their parents, a friend, a pet, or a stuffed animal. Other children feel better when they are able to help someone out or do a kind deed. Give your child options on how they can connect with others and see what works for them.
Provide immediate, specific, and positive feedback. Reflect with your child when the moment has passed to explore how it went. Praise your child for their courage and their effort. Positive attention will help your child feel supported, recognized, and motivated to confront their anxiety. This will help cultivate a "can do" attitude. Help them see their strengths and celebrate their mini successes in big ways.
Challenging anxiety is hard work. The trick is persistence. When children avoid their challenges, their fears grow and their confidence shrinks. On the contrary - when children practice facing their challenges, their courage grows and their fears shrink. If you find that supporting your child with anxiety is more than you can handle on your own, seek professional support and build a team to work alongside you and rally for your child (e.g., counsellor, psychologist, pediatrician). If your child has a neurodevelopmental disorder (e.g., ADHD), be sure to find a professional who is trained in your child's diagnosis AND anxiety so they can tailor a treatment plan specific to your child's needs. With consistent support and practice, your child can develop the skills and confidence they need to confront their anxiety and persist with courage when things get tough. Small steps will lead to larger goals.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
Anxiety Canada is a website offering free information, articles, and resources on worry, panic, perfectionism, social anxiety, and phobias
My Anxiety Plan is a free self-guided study plan to help children, youth, and parents manage anxiety
MindShift CBT is a free evidence-based app to help manage anxiety
Books on helping parents support their child with anxiety:
Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children - by Lynn Lyons & Reid Wilson
Parent-Led CBT for Child Anxiety: Helping Parents Help their Kids - by Cathy Creswell, Monika Parkinson, Kerstin Thirlwall, & Lucy Willetts
Hey Warrior: A Book For Kids About Anxiety - by Karen Young
Calm - resource with meditations, stories, music, talks, and more
Headspace - app with guided and unguided meditations as well as animations for younger kids