When our kids have worries and anxieties, often our first instinct is to step in and ‘fix things’ – to be the knight in shining armour always protecting our children from their fears. Being a safe harbour for our children is incredibly important. At the same time, we should also aim to help our kids learn to tolerate and cope with heightened emotions, rather than attempting to remove all possibly anxiety-inducing triggers from their lives.
Remember: we aren’t here to eliminate anxiety – we’re here to support and hold our children through their concerns, and to help them build strategies to manage their worries.
Strategies for dealing with childhood anxieties
It can be incredibly difficult – and sometimes incredibly frustrating – to watch a child struggle with anxiety. Following are some pointers for helping children step outside the cycle of worry or fear.
Take a breath. Literally.
This step is firstly for you – giving yourself a moment in the face of your child’s anxiety to be calm and positive. Secondly, teaching your child breathing exercises gives them a powerful tool to soothe their own overstimulated nervous system. There are a number of simple breath techniques to explore, but you can start by asking your child to take a slow deep breath in through the nose and right down to their belly, then to breathe out slowly through their mouth as if they are very gently trying to blow out a candle.
Validate the fear
If your child is in the grip of anxiety, unfortunately telling them, ‘Not to worry’, isn’t going to be particularly helpful – even if, as the adult, you can see their anxiety is irrational. This instead is a time to get listening and to let your child feel heard and respected. You can approach the situation with an authenticating statement and then a question to find out more: ‘I can see that you’re having big feelings right now and I know that can be scary. Can you tell me more about what is worrying you?’
Support and assist
Validating a child’s fears doesn’t mean that you don’t think that they can overcome them – and together you can brainstorm ideas or techniques that may help them reduce their anxieties. Let your child know that you have faith in their ability to tolerate and work through their discomfort – and that you’ll be there to assist them.
Remember that helping your child through their discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding situations that may make your child anxious – this may help them feel better in the moment, but may reinforce the anxiety in the longer term.
Check your own behaviour
Unfortunately, if we are overprotective or ‘helicoptering’, we as parents can reinforce a child’s thinking that they can’t ever work things out themselves. Sometimes it’s great to just take a step back and let them puzzle their own way through. Look also at how calm you are and how you move through your day – if your child is confident that you are the cool, composed leader of your ‘team’, they’ll know that you’re a dependable place to return to if they need help or reassurance.
In many ways, being your child’s safe harbour comes down to modelling coping strategies yourself – you may, after all, be dealing with your own stress and anxiety, but you can show your kids that it’s possible to manage these feelings calmly and to build your own strength and resilience.
Knowing that your child is suffering from anxiety can be confusing and heartbreaking. It can be easy to wonder ‘where I went wrong’. Research has shown, however, that anxiety is often the result of many factors, with an estimated one in 14 children and young people experiencing an anxiety disorder in Australia. Now is not the time to play the blame game with yourself, but rather to be kind to yourself and to hold yourself steady so as to be there, at your calmest and strongest, to help your child face their fears.
Seek professional help if you need it – schedule a chat with a Geelong Psychologist
At Happy Minds Psychology we know that parenting is hard, and sometimes to be our children’s champions requires a little support. Talking through your child’s anxieties, as well as your own, can not only give you the tools and strategies to build resilience in your child, but also aid in alleviating parental distress. It may also be beneficial for us to work with parents early (when children are up to seven years old) to help set strong well-being foundations.
Our warm and understanding therapists are committed to assisting families to build and strengthen bonds using evidence-based positive methods. Counselling sessions are available face-to-face in our welcoming Ocean Grove offices or via Telehealth across Australia. Call us on 03 5292 8833, email [email protected] or reach out via our online contact form.