Anxiety is a normal part of life. Having fear and anxiety is normal for a child who is learning more about the world they live in day after day. But how to support an anxious child is something that we as parents should know. Usually, with the help of a parent modelling good behaviors, children will learn how to cope with these feelings.
What marks the difference between a child experiencing regular anxiety and a child who may require more support is when the anxiety affects behaviors and thoughts more than normal for children their age. It can become harder to learn how to cope and it begins to affect how they respond to normal day to day situations like going to school or eating dinner.
A child can be anxious about many things and the cause for anxiety can vary.
Things that can trigger extreme anxiety in children are:
Genetics: In some cases, a child can inherit genes from a family member who struggles with an anxiety disorder which makes them prone to anxiety
Developmental Disorders: Anxiety disorders are commonly seen alongside other disorders like ADHD, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and Sensory Processing Disorder
Stressful Life Situations: Things like divorce, the death of a loved one and abuse can all put a lot of stress on a child who will, in turn, become extremely anxious
Learned Behavior from Parents: Our children learn behavior from us as parents. If we are fearful and outwardly anxious all the time, our kids can pick up on this behavior and make it their own.
Parenting an Anxious Child
My son is an anxious child. His anxiety comes from his inability to process certain sensations. He deals with hypersensitivity and will avoid anything that he knows will cause him stress. When he can’t avoid them, he gets very overwhelmed and starts to panic.
Some of the things he deals with may not seem like a big deal to some, but to him they are. And his response to these situations presents a very real challenge. He can sometimes become inconsolable and the episode can last for a very long time.
As a parent, it can be sad and stressful to watch these behaviors unfold. Not only that but it can also be frustrating because no matter what you do, nothing seems to help. Thankfully we have access to so many resources today that can teach us how to better support our kids when these things happen.
I’ve been learning ways to help my son face big emotions and how to help him overcome his fears. We’ve actually made great progress. It’s crazy what intentional love and support can do for a child.
I’ve created a list down below of the ways I support my anxious child, hopefully, they can help you too.
I Am Familiar With His Triggers
This one is so important.
Our children depend on us for safety and that looks like creating environments where they can thrive and be safe. In my case, it looks like making sure my son’s socks match, aren’t the thick kind and don’t have any loose threads or having enough wipes on hand to clean his dirty finger’s before it overwhelms him. Creating safe environments will help prevent stress, panic attacks and meltdowns for your child. I make sure that my home is as trigger-free as possible so that he can carry on as normal.
Routines are so important for kids, especially toddlers, for so many reasons. They provide consistency, predictability and a sense of safety. You can read more about how routines benefit kids here.
I Lower my Expectations for Good Behavior
Growing up Hispanic, one thing I remember clear as day is the constant judgment on other parents for having “misbehaved” children. If a child was misbehaving at a gathering it was indicative of whether the mother was too hard or too soft on them or doing a good job raising them vs a terrible job. I made sure to always try to be on my best behavior because I didn’t want anyone to think my mom was anything but the amazing mother she was.
Although I want my son to learn how to behave well, I’ve learned that expecting him to know what to do with his emotions, how to cope and how to express them at the level that an adult would is completely unreasonable.
When a child this age has a tantrum it’s not because they are “bad kids”. Rather they are overwhelmed with feelings they have no clue what to do with and are reaching out for our help. The worst thing we can do is punish them for not knowing how to behave and make them feel bad about it. Tantrums and meltdowns are actually a healthy part of their development and we as parents need to guide them through it and gently teach them the right way to respond to big emotions.
Naming emotions and Learning to Cope
When my son has a meltdown, I make sure that we sit down and talk through what he was feeling once he is done. I also talk about the ways we can express those emotions responsibly and healthily. During big emotions I lay out these calming corner cards (shown below) and allow him to choose his preferred way of coping and calming down. It doesn’t work every time, BUT it does teach his mind to think of these options when he feels frustrated or sad. Eventually, he the goal is for him to always default to a healthy coping technique rather than a destructive one.
Getting His Mind Off of Stressful Situations
This is something I’ve been working with him on as a type of exposure therapy. When I know he’s about to face something that will cause him anxiety and there is nothing I can do to stop it, I will do my best to get his mind off of it. I do this with a game, an activity or a favorite movie.
It doesn’t always work but when it has I’ve seen a lot of progress. Being intentional about getting his mind off of things as they are happening has gotten him to try some new foods (even if it was only once) which is a huge win in my book. Small things for some, but these are huge advances for him.
Power Reversal Games
When my son has had a very stressful episode he usually feels powerless and sad. Anxiety robs him of the security and confidence he usually feels. This is when I will play games with him that make him feel powerful. These can be games like “Superhero” where he comes to rescue me or anything where he feels like he’s in charge and will get a boost of confidence in himself.
Restoring confidence is key to their recovery. You know your child best, so do whatever it takes to help them feel in charge of themselves again. Let them know that they can overcome anything!
Related Article: What are Power Reversal Games?
I Pray With Him
The Bible says that we should be anxious for nothing but instead, through prayer, make our requests known to God. As a result of doing this, the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:6-7).
I am teaching my son that anxiety is a part of life. Sometimes when anxiety comes, it overwhelms us but because we have faith in God, we have a hope and somewhere to lay our anxiety down.
Every morning we thank God for sustaining us. I want him to be aware that even when his world is shaking, the One who holds everything together is also holding him together. We can cast our cares on Him because He cares for us. So when he has a meltdown, we pray together and ask God to help us. We declare truth over him that he is loved and never alone.
“…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Jesus (John 8:32)
I’ve found throughout my life that the key to finding freedom in truth is to understand that freedom is a daily thing. Anxiety is a relentless emotion that doesn’t care how free you feel. We need truth to come into our hearts daily and sometimes hourly to experience continued freedom from it. I want to equip my son with the truth he needs to daily and effectively fight against anxiety.
Seek Help and Community
Last but not least, there is NO shame in needing help. God created community for that reason. Whether that looks like therapy or a group, there are plenty of people who are willing to offer their help if we just reach out. Sometimes we are conditioned to feel shame for reaching out to ask for help but we shouldn’t. There are plenty of parents who are facing similar issues and who have experience and wisdom that they can share. I am thankful to have people in my life that I can ask for help when needed.
Anxiety will look different for every child. For some, it won’t be a big deal and for others, it may take up more of their life than it should. Because of that, the approach we take to support them can also look different. But our role as parents is to walk with them through these things and give them the best chance at a healthy mind and life in adulthood.
In what ways do you support your anxious child?