Parenting series - how to help an anxious child
Posted August 30, 2016
Starting school this year has been rough for my son. He has terrible anxiety and stresses over everything. We can’t seem to convince him, no matter what we say, that his fears are unfounded and he is OK. He is having some panic attacks too, and I’m starting to wonder if he needs medication, but I really really don’t want to go there. Do you have any suggestions for helping him have less anxiety?
There are some things you can try before resorting to medication. I’m going to give you suggestions that could help change your child’s fear-based thinking on both the conscious and subconscious levels.
- Don’t add shame to the fear. Let him know that it’s OK and even normal to feel afraid on occasion. Almost everyone feels some fear or panic when starting something new or meeting new people. Avoid making him feel that something is wrong with him for feeling this way. Say things like “I totally understand why you would feel this way and it’s perfectly normal." Anxiety gets even worse when they become anxious about being anxious. You can really help by not acting too worried.
- Studies have shown that when people around you believe in you, and believe you can overcome something, it’s a lot easier and more likely to happen. Tell your son often he’s got this, and he’s strong, capable and smart. Tell him everyone has to learn how to deal with fear. He hadn't learned how before, but now he can and you believe in him. This will help him believe in himself.
- Explain what anxiety and panic attacks are about. They are the body's automatic response to fear, and they happen because your body thinks you are in danger. Everyone’s body does this on occasion. Sometimes the body gets tricked though and it thinks you’re in danger when you really aren’t. Explain his brain is trying to protect him with these “what if” games and scary thoughts, but brains sometimes imagine things that aren’t real. Help him learn to ask “Is this scary thing real or an imagined scary thing my brain made up?” Identifying worries as imagined will help discredit them.
- In a panic attack or anxiety moment, help your child come to his senses. Have him close his eyes and tell you what he feels, what he hears right now, what he smells right now. Having him use his senses will get his brain focused on what’s real — right now. Also have him pay attention to his breathing and ask if it’s fast or slow, deep or shallow? Is he feeling high energy or low energy? Explain that fast shallow breathing is just the body's way to help you fight physical danger, but slow deep breaths make you feel safer.
- Get the pent-up, high, anxious energy out. Hand the child a box of tissues and have him grab and throw them hard and fast across the room (or as far as they’ll go) one by one. This won’t break anything and it helps that pent-up energy get released.
- Teach kids that panic attacks and anxiety pass. They are temporary and you can make it through them in a few minutes (usually 10-15 minutes at the most). Don’t make a big deal about a panic attack. Don't talk about it too much afterwards or tell other people about it, after your child has one. This would make the attacks more significant and add shame to the mix. You want your child to see himself and his anxiety as normal and no big deal. If you see them as a small issue, he will too.
- If the fear is real, talk about how he could handle specific situations if they come up. Run through some real scenarios and help him think of options in response. If "that" happens, what could he do? Preparing a response in advance will help him feel less scared.
- Figure out if his fears are about safety and mistreatment, or looking bad and failing. What is the core fear your child is battling? Some kids have a psychological inclination towards a need for control and they feel unsafe or anxious if they don’t have it. Some kids have a huge need for validation because their anxiety is about not being good enough. Others fear rejection or abandonment. Once you understand which fears are at the heart of your child's problems, you will understand what he needs. There is worksheet on my website that explains which fears show up in different personality or psychological types of kids.
- Teach kids their value can't change. If you child fears failure and not being good enough, you can hep him change the way he sees the value of all human beings at the fundamental principle level, This will also change the way he sees his own value. Teach your child all human beings have the same exact worth and that value cannot change. Help him remember that win or lose, good grades or bad grades, he still has the same value as everyone else. Help him to stop judging others too and he will stop judging himself.
- Teach your child the world is a safe place. It is in childhood that many of our subconscious beliefs are developed. It is crucial that you teach children to see their world as a safe place while they are young. If they see life as a dangerous place, a fear of loss will haunt them their whole life. Help them understand that although some bad things can happen, they will only happen if they provide important lessons and these lessons will help us grow. Help your children understand that life is not trying to beat them or hurt them; it is only facilitating experiences to help them become better and stronger. This mindset will lay a solid foundation of strength and help your children handle life with confidence. (You may need to change or work on your own beliefs about life before you can teach it. Children learn more from how you live than what you say. You must learn to see life and the universe as a safe place (a divinely created classroom) and overcome your own fears of loss, before you can teach these principles to your children. You may want to seek some professional help on this.)
- Help your child recognize the difference between fears that help us and fears that hurt us. Fears that help us are fears that motivate us to take action. Fears that hurt us paralyze us and prompt inaction. Being afraid of strangers is a helpful fear because it prompts you to be careful. Being afraid to talk to anyone or meet new people is a hurtful fear. It prompts inaction and prevents you from making friends. Teach him to ask himself, "Will worry or fear about this do anything good?" You can even role play some scary situations and help your child identify if this fear is helpful or not.
- Teach your child relaxation and self-calming skills. We all need to learn how to calm our fight or flight response. If we learn how to do this as a child, it will serve us our whole life.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a popular life coach, speaker and people skills expert.