Children with anxiety love there parents just the same as other children. They look up to them, they listen to them, and they want to be able to trust what they tell them. Unfortunately, that anxiety makes it incredibly difficult to trust anyone other than the anxiety. Anxiety causes children to be on high alert for any danger and tells them beyond logic that they are not safe. As adults, we may not understand these fears or worries, especially if we have not experienced anxieties ourselves. This can sometimes lead to us telling these poor kiddos things that actually make the situation worse. We can easily mistakenly minimize their fears when trying to help them see that they are over thinking or worrying too much. We can add things to worry about when providing facts in an attempt to minimize their irrational fears. And unfortunately we can invalidate their feelings and cause them to feel alone when we react to quickly or become frustrated with an anxiety that we don’t understand.
Children are sensitive by nature and anxiety only amplifies that. As parents, or even adults in any supportive role to a child, it is important to understand what anxiety is and how we can help support without enabling or invalidating. Anxiety is intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations, often times of perceived danger. Children with anxiety often need frequent reassurances that they are safe and that they will get past what they fear or worry about. This can become frustrating for an adult who sees that the fear is not logical, leading to responses that are not always helpful. Here are some things to say and to avoid when trying to support a child with anxiety.
What to Say and Do to Support a Child with Anxiety:
- Remember that sometimes the physical symptoms of anxiety need to be tended to before a child is able to attend to the mental symptoms. If they are having an adrenaline or fight or flight response, they will not be able to think past that in the moment. Help them to control their breathing and racing heart with breathing exercises, sooth their stomach with some ginger-ale, help them do some muscle relaxation, or help them find a safe spot to sit in while they calm down before you start talking to them.
- Validate their emotions. Tell them and reassure them that you see they are scared and that it must be really difficult. If you don’t understand, don’t tell them that you do. They will see right through you and that will only serve to lessen their ability to trust you. If you can, give examples of when you were scared and how you dealt with it rather than saying you understand this exact situation. Tell them you know it isn’t the same but that you have been scared before so you can at least understand that part of the feeling.
- Encourage them to use their coping skills and gently remind them what they are. “Remember to use your breathing exercises or to write in your journal.”
- Rather than promising the fear won’t happen, reinforce that they will be able to cope and deal with it when it comes. Remind them that they have strength.
- Patiently talk things out with the child, when they are calm and ready. Wait until the initial response has passed and try to worth together on a plan to cope better next time.
- Model healthy ways to cope with anxiety and minimize time spent talking about your own anxiety. It is important for them to know that you do have fears and worries, but also to find the balance between that and overwhelming them with it.
- Remind them that even though some days the worries feel too big to handle, other days are easier and the goal is to keep building the easy days and to cope with the bad days.
What not to Say or Do to Support a Child with Anxiety:
- Don’t simply say it’s going to be okay, or to trust me, give them reasons to believe and trust you that things are going to be okay and remember that anxiety is not logical so they may not always be able to listen and believe that.
- Don’t try to give reasons they don’t have to worry. They know what you are saying makes sense but the anxiety tells them not to listen and fights all logic. This can also invalidate their feelings or make them feel worse for being anxious.
- Don’t yell or reprimand for worrying. It can be very difficult to remain calm when most efforts to soothe your child have failed or when it starts to interfere with daily plans; however, yelling and punishing will just add shame and increase the worry because now they have to fear upsetting their parent.
- Don’t ask leading questions about why they are worried. When they are unable to explain a worry or fear it is hard not to try to figure it out, but if you ask leading questions it can either add more things to worry about or frustrate the child because you are guessing wrong.
- Don’t give too much warning of feared situations but also don’t surprise them with them. Keep the lead up to them short but give them enough time to deal with the feeling prior to facing the fear.
- Don’t avoid situations because they cause anxiety. Sometimes it will seem easier to avoid situations but this does not teach them to cope with the anxiety.
- Don’t try to get rid of the anxiety, teach them to cope with it.