Are you looking for ways to help your anxious child? As a therapist, I learned early on that the best way to help children is to help parents. And as a parent, I’ve been humbled to realize that my own patterns have an effect on my children. (Who can relate to parenting = humbling??) We create the “soup” our children swim in, so parents really are the most influential people in a child’s life. The more parents pay attention to their own patterns, the more the child benefits.
Speaking of humbling parenting moments, can I tell you one of mine? My daughter transitioned from homeschooling to public school in 1st grade, and she was loving it. But a few weeks in, she started getting stomach aches on school mornings. I asked her how things were going with friends, teachers, etc… Rachel said everything was good. I contacted her most AMAZING teacher, Mrs. Bonnecroy, and she gave an insight that surprised me.
“I’m not judging,” she said very kindly, “but Rachel gets here right when the bell rings, so she is always rushed to get her pre-class duties done. Most students arrive 15 minutes early to get settled in. I wonder if it would help her to arrive at school a few minutes earlier.” Yikes!! It was my pattern of arriving at the last minute that was causing Rachel stress. The next day I made sure Rachel arrived early. She didn’t have a stomach ache that morning, or any morning afterward!
Consider another scenario: a child comes home from school complaining about friend problems. Mom immediately jumps into action by contacting the teacher and other moms. Because of mom’s reaction, this child may get the message that she is not strong enough to work through the friend problem herself.
Parents can instead send an empowering message by their words and actions. Mom could ask the child questions such as: “How do you feel about that? What do you think you should do? What would help? What would hurt?” Dad could affirm the child by saying, “I know this is really hard, but together we’ll get through this.” The child will get the message that she is strong, she is good at solving problems, and her parents are wise guides in her life.
Affirming your kids is a great way to strengthen them.
Anxiety in children can show up in many ways. It may manifest as a stomach ache, headache, resistance to going somewhere, crying a lot, or getting really angry. A huge part of recognizing anxiety is noticing patterns.
Does the child have a stomach ache every day before school, or just the days they have P.E.?
Does the child get a “headache” every time they have a game or public performance or just when they play certain teams?
How do you respond? Do you tell them they don’t have to do it? Do you get anxious? Or do you stay calm?
Sometimes parents will interpret the headache as “faking” in order to get out of an unwanted activity. I encourage parents to resist labeling these episodes as faking or trying to get out of something. Many times children are not able to process the thoughts or feelings causing their anxiety, but their bodies are revealing the anxiety.
One of the best tools parents have in calming their children is emotional closeness. Taking time to be with your child is one of the best ways to help your child feel more secure. You can spend time talking about the thing they don’t want to do, but that may not be as helpful as just spending time snuggling at night before bed. I have had parents report amazing changes in their child’s behavior simply by spending 10-15 minutes together reading before bedtime.
Affirming Your Child
One of the great privileges of parenting is building a scaffolding of confidence in your child. By delighting in your children, telling them how much you like them, and affirming their strengths, you can help them gain confidence to face the challenges in their world.
Spending quality time with your children and delighting in them are two big ways to help lessen their anxiety. Sometimes, however, you really do need to talk about what is bothering them. How do you talk about it? Here are some ideas...
Let’s use riding the bus as an example -- it is a stressor for a lot of kids.
Ask your child questions such as:
Then try an exercise like this:
Make a List
Lastly, as you pay attention to these patterns and behaviors, write down your observations.
What do you do when your child feels anxious?
What is a new choice you could make that affirms their strength and intelligence?
What are the physical tells that signal your child is anxious?
How can you affirm them and teach them some skills to help them be strong?
Working with parents is one of my favorite aspects of being a therapist. I hope this gives you some new tools as you interact with your child and create a more peaceful home life.