Helping children manage anxiety
MADISON, Wis. — Parents often feel the “push-pull” of wanting their children to be comfortable and happy, yet ready for life as independent adults. At times you may feel like you want to try to eliminate their anxiety. But frankly, it is part of life and something everyone experiences. That underscores the importance of trying to manage anxiety, rather than trying to get rid of it.
Impacts of avoiding anxiety-provoking situations
Anxiety is like a wave: You may have strong emotions at the start of a stressful situation and feel like you’re riding the crest. Eventually, things will calm down and you experience a natural decline. But if someone consistently jumps off the wave by avoiding or escaping the stressful situation, they never experience the decline. That can erode a child’s confidence.
“Kids can start seeing their peers handling a situation that terrifies them and start to think about themselves in very negative ways,” SSM Health psychologist Dr. Jennifer Karlsson said. “You may start hearing your child say things like ‘I’m a chicken’ or ‘I’m so lame.'”
Well-meaning adults can contribute to this negatively by offering what they think is encouragement. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear an adult say “grow up, don’t be a baby.” This can make a child feel as if they’re an even bigger disappointment.
Trust in your children
Karlsson recommends being honest and open with your kids when it comes to anxiety. Let them know that everyone has things that make them feel anxious. For example, even Indiana Jones, who is known for his bravery, was terrified of snakes.
It’s also important to instill confidence in them. Parents can be tempted to delay telling kids about anxiety-provoking events like a doctor or dental appointment. That way, there will be less time to worry. But this can actually undermine their trust in mom or dad.
“It signals to kids that their parents don’t think they can handle the situation,” Karlsson said. “It’s better to be realistic and inform children of these events as you would everything else on the family calendar.”
— SSM Health Wisconsin (@ssmhealthwi) March 19, 2018
Being a compassionate coach
Sometimes parents think they have to be fearless themselves to help their children cope with anxiety. But research suggests children do better by being exposed to an example or model that expresses some anxiety. So being open and honest about your own feelings can help connect you to your children.
Another helpful tip: validate your child’s feelings. By telling them that you understand why they’re upset about a situation, their self-confidence may actually be boosted. And when you’re discussing potential solutions, see what they can think of and sit back and listen.
“I’m continually struck by the great ideas children have for helping themselves overcome a situation they fear,” Karlsson said. “If your child isn’t sure what might help, offer the notion of gradual exposure (aka ‘baby steps’) to help them ride that wave of anxiety down to a manageable level.”
Lastly, be sure to praise your kids when they take those “baby steps.” You can talk to them about how proud you are of their effort. Success isn’t measured by the complete elimination of anxiety, but rather how kids learn to manage it.
If you remain concerned about your child’s level of anxiety, reach out to your health care provider. A pediatrician or family medicine provider can provide valuable advice or direction to meet your family’s needs.
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