Having a son or daughter who struggles with an anxiety disorder can be distressing. You closely watch for their overreactions and listen with a mix of love and aggravation to their ever-growing list of worries. You may not be able to take away all of your child’s worries, but you can help them cope with day-to-day anxiety.
Parents have a tendency to blame themselves for their child’s anxiety. While it may be true that some parents may not model the best ways of dealing with anxiety, they may not have the skills to deal with it better themselves. And children may be predisposed to anxiety due to their own temperament. Given the range of factors that may contribute to anxiety in children, it may be best to focus on addressing the problem rather than assigning blame.
Make home “base.” A child with anxiety has enough worry to contend with at school and with their friends. Home should be a safe space of acceptance and security. As often as possible, focus on positive encouragement over punishment, and be sure to reward your child’s achievements – no matter how minor they seem to you. Research has also shown the importance of rewarding not only achievements, but also children’s self-discipline and perseverance in the face of challenges.
Make family a team. A unified family can be like a back-up “backbone” for an anxious child. This can even include extended family: Grandparents, cousins, and any other significant family or friends with whom your child regularly interacts can all provide invaluable support through their positive encouragement and unwavering affection. Be sure to discuss boundaries with siblings, including rules about name-calling and teasing.
Be consistent… and yet flexible. Consistency counts in a couple of areas for an anxious child. For one thing, routines provide security and predictability. Having clear rules for children’s behaviors is also important. In addition, consequences for breaking these rules should also be clear and consistent. And if parents have the same high expectations for all of their children, an anxious kid will be less likely to feel set apart.
And yet, parenting an anxious kid also calls for adaptability. Be ready to change plans if something seems to be worsening or enabling your child’s anxiety. Pay attention to signs that your child is over-stressed or tired.
Talk with your child. Encourage your child to talk with you about their feelings. This helps to boost your child’s “emotional vocabulary” so they have more words to explain their fears and anxious thoughts. Listen patiently and without judging, criticizing, or belittling their worries. Through this running dialogue, you’re likely to learn more about your child’s anxiety triggers – the things that set off panic attacks or worry streaks – and pick up on the subtle cues that signal something is wrong.
Cultivate calm. A calm state of mind comes in handy during stressful moments, like if your child has a panic attack. Your steadiness will help steady your child’s nerves and set an example of positive, proactive problem solving. Also, when you live with a child with an anxiety disorder, you can become accustomed to a high level of stress and uneasiness. Cultivate calm by taking a deep breath now and then and really appreciating down time. Encourage your child to relax by doing relaxing things together – reading, drawing or working on art projects, or playing games.
Have confidence in your child. Show your child that you believe in them. In smaller, day-to-day matters, hand over the reins and let your child make decisions, take responsibility, and exercise some control over their life. Resist the temptation to play problem-solver or hero to your child. Any time you’re involved in helping your child solve a problem, it should be as a team with your child.
Also, resist treating your child as if they are weak or need constant protection because of their anxiety. Rather, model constructive ways of dealing with anxiety and situations that may trigger negative emotions, and communicate confidence in your child’s ability to deal with their anxiety in this same adaptive manner. Let them work their way through some struggles. On a grander scale, remind your child – through your words, your actions, and your affection – that you have confidence that he or she will overcome anxiety.