Anxiety is among the most common challenges for children and teens. Common signs of anxiety include worrying (“I will fall and get hurt!”), frequent reassurance seeking (“Is it safe? Are you sure? Did you check?”) and avoiding feared situations (“I don’t want to go!”). Children may have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and/or complain of frequent stomach aches or other physical concerns.
For a caregiver, it can be challenging to know exactly how to respond to your child when they feel anxious or worried. Should you crack a joke to distract them? Should you reassure them and say there’s nothing to worry about? Should you protect them and stay away from whatever is causing them distress?
Annoyingly, the most intuitive responses are not always the most helpful. Caregivers naturally want to reassure and protect their children by keeping them away from whatever is making them scared. Unfortunately, these two strategies are band-aid solutions; they work in the short-term by momentarily reducing anxiety, but in the long-term, they feed it! You may have noticed that no matter how much you reassure your anxious child, they keep asking for more. And the more they avoid that ice rink, the scarier the idea of falling becomes. What we want to do instead is acknowledge a child’s worries (let’s face it, we all have them), and show them that they don’t have to listen to their anxiety, that they can be courageous and face their fears! This is the only way children will learn to cope with anxiety over time.
So, how should you respond when your child is anxious?
Step 1: Listen and empathize. Be curious and help your child express what is worrying them. Stay calm, listen, and then summarize what they said. Normalize the feeling of anxiety (we all get worried sometimes). Try to avoid saying things like “That’s no reason to be scared!” or “You don’t have to worry about that!”. Try, “I understand, you’re afraid that if you go skating on Julie’s birthday, you might get hurt”.
Step 2: Externalize. Help children see their worry as just that – a worry (not the truth!). Anxiety is like an annoying, lying bully. It tries to make us believe things that aren’t true. When we help children separate themselves from their worry, they can start to fight back! You can say, “that sounds like anxiety talking, and we don’t have to follow it!”
Step 3: Encourage courageous behaviour. There are many different ways to encourage children to be brave and courageous. Here are some suggestions:
Check out the resources below for more practical tips on anxiety in children, and for knowing when it might be time to seek professional help.
Child Mind Institute: https://childmind.org/topics/anxiety/
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, by D. Huebner and B. Matthews
What to Do When Fear Interferes: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Phobias, by C.A.B. Freeland, J.B. Toner, and J. McDonnell