Anxiety is among the most common challenges for children and teens. Common signs of anxiety include worrying (“I will fall and get hurt!”), frequent reassurance seeking (“Is it safe? Are you sure? Did you check?”) and avoiding feared situations (“I don’t want to go!”). Children may have difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and/or complain of frequent stomach aches or other physical concerns.
For a caregiver, it can be challenging to know exactly how to respond to your child when they feel anxious or worried. Should you crack a joke to distract them? Should you reassure them and say there’s nothing to worry about? Should you protect them and stay away from whatever is causing them distress?
Annoyingly, the most intuitive responses are not always the most helpful. Caregivers naturally want to reassure and protect their children by keeping them away from whatever is making them scared. Unfortunately, these two strategies are band-aid solutions; they work in the short-term by momentarily reducing anxiety, but in the long-term, they feed it! You may have noticed that no matter how much you reassure your anxious child, they keep asking for more. And the more they avoid that ice rink, the scarier the idea of falling becomes. What we want to do instead is acknowledge a child’s worries (let’s face it, we all have them), and show them that they don’t have to listen to their anxiety, that they can be courageous and face their fears! This is the only way children will learn to cope with anxiety over time.
So, how should you respond when your child is anxious?
Step 1: Listen and empathize. Be curious and help your child express what is worrying them. Stay calm, listen, and then summarize what they said. Normalize the feeling of anxiety (we all get worried sometimes). Try to avoid saying things like “That’s no reason to be scared!” or “You don’t have to worry about that!”. Try, “I understand, you’re afraid that if you go skating on Julie’s birthday, you might get hurt”.
Step 2: Externalize. Help children see their worry as just that – a worry (not the truth!). Anxiety is like an annoying, lying bully. It tries to make us believe things that aren’t true. When we help children separate themselves from their worry, they can start to fight back! You can say, “that sounds like anxiety talking, and we don’t have to follow it!”
Step 3: Encourage courageous behaviour. There are many different ways to encourage children to be brave and courageous. Here are some suggestions:
- Model effective coping: Don’t pretend like you do not experience any stress or anxiety! This sets an unrealistic expectation for kids. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate anxiety – it’s to accomplish things in spite of For example, if you feel stressed about an important meeting you have at work, you can say something like, “I’m feeling worried about that meeting tomorrow and I want it to go well. I’m going to take a few deep breaths to calm my nerves and remind myself how prepared I am”.
- Use positive reinforcement: Whenever you observe your child being courageous, let them know! You can make a specific comment like, “You worked super hard today – I know how nervous you get talking in front of your class, and you did a great job getting through that!” If it fits with your family values, you can even provide tangible rewards to kids who work hard to face their fears.
- Debrief: Gently help children to notice when their worry predictions don’t pan out. This teaches kids to challenge their anxious thoughts and determine whether they are worth believing. Importantly, sometimes worry thoughts do come true (sometimes we do slip and fall while skating!) – in these cases, help children to see that even though their fear actually happened, they were able to cope with it.
Check out the resources below for more practical tips on anxiety in children, and for knowing when it might be time to seek professional help.