Learning points: Show your child how to cope with anxiety, not beat it

Parents often come to me feeling they have exhausted every avenue and are looking for practical steps to help their child’s anxiety. The parents often present as being very anxious themselves.When parents ask me ‘so, what should we do?’ I begin by looking at what has been their approach so far. It’s important, in the early stages, to identify what hasn’t worked. Often, the parent’s efforts have added to the sense of stress and anxiety in the house. So, in today’s article I’m going to outline three easy steps to follow to help your child deal with anxiety.The following information is very important for parents to consider before they attempt to help their child cope with anxiety. Stop trying to help your child to get rid of anxiety.

This is not a helpful way to view the issue. Anxiety is a part of us all and we will all feel varying degrees of anxiety throughout our lives. You must help your child to cope with it when it does arise. This is the first important step. Change how you view anxiety. Telling your child you are going to help them get rid of it is just setting your child up for failure and will add to their low self–esteem. Anxiety is another thing they fail at. So often, I hear parents telling their child ‘we will fight this together’. That language is combative and unhelpful, because we cannot defeat anxiety like it is an invading army, but we can learn how to manage it.

So, think in terms of helping your child to cope with anxiety when it does appear. That way your child isn’t fearful of it returning.

The reality is, it will return, but you will have taught them strategies to ameliorate the wave of panic that can accompany those initial feelings of anxiousness. That is why I ask parents about their efforts so far, because changing this view is hugely significant if there is to be a positive outcome for the anxious child.

Three easy steps to help your child cope with anxiety:

1. Try to avoid joining your child in their worry. Listen to them and try to understand what it is they are fearful of, but do not allow this to become all-consuming. When every conversation is about the worry, you are making it a dominant narrative and implicitly telling your child that they should be worried. Allocate a time for a discussion on it and then try not to talk about it again until the next allotted time. Remember, be by their side not on it. When you join them in their sense of panic, you are reinforcing the fact they should be anxious.

2. Ask yourself, where did my child learn this negative reaction to a perceived adverse stimulus? Am I modelling how you should cope with anxiety? Show your child a positive way to deal with anxiety. Talk through their feelings and give them ways to deal with those feelings, but remember tip one: Do not spend an inordinate amount of time on it. Just explain what they should do, such as taking time to allow the feelings to dissipate, taking a breath, or remembering to say this will pass, I will feel good again. Role-play it for them, so they can clearly see how someone deals with anxiety. Remember, you’re not teaching them to defeat anxiety, but rather how to cope with it.

3. Do not try to take on too much too soon. Remember this, too much difference is dangerous for a child. If they have a fear of going out into big open spaces, make sure you start by going out into small spaces that are manageable. Parents often have the idea that if they just put their child into a big space, that will cure them, like the child that is fearful of water and you just throw them in.

That is not going to cure the issue; in fact, it is only going to further exacerbate that sense of fear. That child will never go near water again, because you have illuminated that their fear was real. Your approach should be step by step. Don’t push too much too soon and don’t make a big issue about going out somewhere that might be a little crowded. For example, if your child is having an issue with school refusal, you could compromise with them by saying: ‘OK, you can go in for the morning, but if you’re not comfortable, then I will collect you after lunch.’ Alternatively, you could say: ‘How about we do every second day this week?’ This way, you are slowly breaking the fear, step by step.

Remember, it is not about beating anxiety, but rather instilling in your child coping mechanisms that will allow them to successfully manage a bout of anxiety when it does inevitably occur.

We cannot remove anxiety from our children, but as parents we can teach them that feelings of anxiety are transient and they will pass and they are actually quite manageable.

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