How to Help Your Child with Anxiety

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From time to time, all children experience anxiety. For example, many children are anxious on their first day of school. Many are anxious about sleeping in the dark, seeing “monsters”, meeting a stranger or learning to swim or ride a bike. For most of these children, anxiety is typically a part of a developmental phase and is something they eventually grow out of. For some children however, anxiety is not just a phase but a debilitating condition that has a very negative impact on their functioning. For these children, anxiety may prevent them from making friends, going to school, sleeping at night or joining extra-curricular activities. The good news is that anxiety is a very treatable condition. With the right tools, anxious children can learn to cope and manage their anxiety in a way that prevents it from “taking over” their lives.
Parents often struggle to understand why their child has anxiety. Some assume that only children who have experienced trauma develop anxiety, and being unable to trace their child’s anxiety back to a traumatic event, they feel puzzled that their child exhibits so much fear and nervousness. Sometimes parents start to blame themselves, and wonder if there is something about their parenting style that has caused their child’s anxiety. The truth is, anxiety in children typically stems from a combination of factors. While traumatic events can certainly cause anxiety, most children with anxiety have not been exposed to trauma. In fact, for many children, their tendency to feel anxious is a product of having an emotionally sensitive temperament- simply put, they were born with a biological make-up that predisposes them to experiencing anxiety. Often there is a genetic component to their anxiety, as one or both of the child’s parents are also anxious. Some other causes of anxiety include stressful life experiences and circumstances, and observational learning.
As a parent, the first step in helping your child with anxiety is determining whether your child has a legitimate reason to be anxious, and if yes, to help relieve the source of anxiety. For example, if your child is anxious because he or she is being bullied at school, it will be important to address the problem, for example by talking to your child’s teacher. However, if your child does not seem to have a legitimate reason to be anxious, the most helpful approach you can take is to gradually encourage your child to face his or her fears, and to not enable avoidance. The following are some useful tips on how to do so effectively:
  • Help externalize your child’s anxiety by talking about it as something that is separate from your child and that can they can learn to control. Younger children often respond well to the suggestion of conceptualizing their anxiety as a bully, and picking a name for it, for example, the name of a mean character or food that they dislike. This provides a helpful framework for talking about anxiety on a daily basis, e.g. “Is Cruella telling you that I will not be there to pick you up after school?”
  • Explain to your child that the situation they are scared of is actually not dangerous, and that avoiding the situation makes their anxiety worse. Explain the importance of “fighting the bully” and not letting it tell your child what to do/not to do.
  • Express confidence in your child’s ability to be brave. Also make sure to monitor your own reactions and body language. If your child senses that you are worried on their behalf, they are more likely to think that there is a reason to be anxious.
  • Brainstorm different steps that your child can take to gradually face their fears. Make a “step-ladder” in which you rank the different steps based on how anxiety-provoking they are for your child.
  • Encourage your child to practice facing their fear, one step at a time. Begin with a step that is moderately anxiety-provoking and repeat it if necessary. Once your child no longer has anxiety about that step, he or she will be ready to move on to the next step.
  • Help your child develop positive coping statements that they can say to themselves while facing their fears. For example “I can do this”, “Soon I will feel less anxious”, “The more I practice, the easier it will get”, “The things I am worried about probably won’t happen”.
  • Practice relaxation strategies such as deep breathing or gradually tensing and relaxing different muscle groups.
  • Praise and reward your child! Children often have limited insight into why they need to fight their anxiety. Using rewards can be an effective way of increasing your child’s motivation to work on their anxiety, and also is a great way of acknowledging the hard work they are doing!
There are a number of excellent books and online resources that provide more detailed information about how to help your child with anxiety. A good starting point is the website www.anxietybc.ca.
Helping your child with anxiety is sometimes easier said than done! If you are struggling with knowing whether your child’s anxiety is normal or excessive, if you find it difficult to help your child face his or her fears, or if your child’s anxiety is becoming increasingly debilitating, it may be time to seek professional support. At Burnaby Counselling Group, we would be happy to assist you and your child. Please call us at 604-430-1303 for more information about how we may serve you.
The information on this blog is provided for educational purposes only; it is not intended to be used for diagnostic purposes or as a substitute for professional advice or treatment.
Gelareh Karimiha, Registered Psychologist, Burnaby Counselling Group