Anxiety is the most common mental health problem that children experience, with a 10% prevalence rate on average. It’s also a very normal emotion that’s essential to survival.
Children tend to develop certain fears depending on their age. Babies, for instance, typically get anxious around strangers. Toddlers and preschoolers might experience separation anxiety, while older children tend to worry about imaginary things (think monsters under the bed) or real-life situations (like the potential death of a parent).
You might notice your child becomes more aggressive, tries to avoid certain situations, worries about the future, or seeks constant approval or reassurance from you when they’re anxious. They might also experience physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches, or they might struggle in some areas of their daily life — like wetting the bed more frequently or getting into trouble at school.
As the parent of your child, you’re the most important and influential person in their life. Here are some things you can do to help them cope with their anxiety.
1. Don’t Encourage Avoidance
We know it’s not easy seeing your own child in distress. As a parent, your first instinct might be to protect them from their own feelings by removing the source of their anxiety. This might offer some immediate relief, but it can make things worse in the future.
Instead, focus on helping your child learn how to tolerate and manage what they’re afraid of. They might still get anxious again in the future when they find they have to face their fear again, but they’ll certainly be able to cope better, which will gradually help to reduce their anxiety over time.
2. Practice Deep Breathing
One of the quickest, simplest, and most effective ways both adults and children can combat anxiety is by practicing deep breathing. In fact, when children were instructed to take several deep breaths before a timed math test as part of a study, they experienced significant improvements in both their anxiety levels and their test performance.
Deep breathing is as simple as taking a slow breath in through the nose for about four seconds, holding it for a second or two, then exhaling slowly through the mouth for about four seconds. Repeat this 3 to 10 times as needed. Try practicing it yourself alongside your child to show them how it helps you stay calm too. It can take kids (and adults) a while before they are able to regulate their heart rate using deep breathing, so repeated practice is a must.
3. Be Mindful of Feelings
When your child is anxious, you might feel frustrated with them at first, but keep in mind that their feelings need to be validated. Be sure to respond empathetically and reassure them that everything is going to be okay. Try describing their anxiety as if it were like riding a wave in the ocean, building up until it peaks and then breaks as it reaches the shore. Offering physical comfort like a hug or a cuddle can also go a long way.
Encourage your child to talk to you about their anxiety, but don’t say anything that could provoke them. For instance, instead of asking, “Are you nervous about your presentation at school tomorrow?” consider a more open-ended question like, “How are you feeling about your presentation at school tomorrow?”. Offering alternative emotions, such as excitement can be helpful as well. In fact, some studies show that just saying “I’m excited for this presentation to be over,” can reduce anxiety and improve performance.
4. Help Them Build Confidence
It’s important to validate your child’s feelings and empathize with them, but be careful not to agree with them so much that it reinforces their anxiety. If your child is anxious about performing at a piano recital, for example, you can say something like, “I know you’re feeling a little nervous right now,” and then remind them of their unique skills, abilities, or past performances that will help them get through it. Tell them that you believe in them, and suggest ways that you can help or support them if they need it.
You can also help your child build their self-confidence by problem solving and then gradually exposing them to the source of their anxiety. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, you could read a story or watch a video together about being afraid of the dark. Then, you could take inspiration from that story or video and explore the use of some of the same tools — like a night light, a special stuffed animal, or a “magic wand” — to help your child feel less afraid of the dark.
5. Minimize the Anticipatory Period
Anxiety is often the worst during the lead up to the anticipated event or situation, which is a good reason to keep that period as short as possible. Instead of talking about it sooner than necessary, encourage your child to do some kind of activity that calms them and distracts them from their anxious thoughts.
Physical activities like running, walking, stretching or dancing can help your child release any tension they might be feeling in their body. Physical activity also helps children manage their heart rate and breathing, both of which are very important in managing anxiety. Other activities like drawing, colouring, journaling, reading, playing a game, listening to music or watching a video can help take their minds off of what they’re worried about.
6. Model Positive Responses to Anxiety
Children can pick up on their parents’ anxiety and are greatly influenced by the ways in which they handle it for themselves. If you want to teach your child how to manage their anxiety in a healthy way, start with how you handle your own anxiety.
Instead of trying to hide your anxiety from your child, let them see you manage it calmly. You can do this by practicing a deep breathing technique and asking them to join you, or by saying, “Things can be scary, but we can still do them. I’m feeling a little scared right now, but you know what? That’s okay. I’m going to be brave and do it anyway.”
Get Extra Support to Help Your Child Cope With Anxiety
No matter how good of a parent you are, dealing with your child’s anxiety can still be stressful and overwhelming at times. The good news is that anxiety in children is very treatable.
If you’re struggling to help your child face their fears and manage their feelings, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to talk about it. Contact usto let us know a bit more about your situation, or book an appointment now to schedule your first consultation.