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Parenting a Child with Anxiety
(Beginning Tips)

Are you parenting a child with anxiety?  Here are some beginning tips…

Investigate “Outside Causes” 

Begin by ensuring that the anxiety or stress behaviors do not have a physical or emotional origin, such as past or present sexual or emotional abuse, a medical disorder, bullying at school, or similar issue.  These involve more than just a child’s “emotional overreactions” and are real reasons for a child to be anxious or stressed out.  In addition to potentially addressing these with therapy, these may also need to be addressed with other medical or mental health professionals, school professionals, and others such as authorities.

Seek Professional Help If Needed

Even if not from “outside causes,” some anxiety requires the help of a professional therapist, and/or a medical doctor.  If your child is significantly depressed, experiences panic attacks, has obsessions or compulsions, has phobias, may need medication, expresses hopelessness, has a mental health disorder, or may injure himself or others, you need experts. Other individual or family issues which may be hard for you to tackle alone include few or inconsistent family limits, imbalances of personal power in the family, marital arguing, or divorce stress.  If you need it, find the help of a competent, experienced therapist and medical doctor.

Examine and Address Your Own Anxiety

You are a model for your child regarding how to make choices, handle stress and solve problems.  You also give him/her signals about whether there is anything to worry about in a particular situation.  When parenting a child with anxiety, if you worry aloud often, or overreact with anxiety or catastrophic thinking to minor issues, your child may believe these are reasonable responses to everyday stress.  Do not continue the cycle by modeling unneeded anxiety for your child.  If your anxiety issues are significant, you may need to seek help from a medical and/or mental health professional.

Adjust your Emotional Responses

Children with anxiety are often “high receivers” in that they can pick up emotional messages very easily.  If you are angry, you may not need to magnify your tone, words or facial expressions because your child may experience this as overwhelming and much more negative than you intend.  Watch your child’s responses and learn what is “just right” for him/her.

Help Your Child Self-Calm

Investigate books or Internet resources on “self-calming.”  Using a Stress Thermometer or some other method, help your child learn about his stress response and have him choose ways to calm down.  Be empathetic but matter-of-fact.  Don’t escalate yourself to the point of being over-reassuring. 

Help Your Child Exert Reasonable Controls and Limits  

Children with anxiety are often overwhelmed.  Help your child identify what is overwhelming him or bothering him about a situation, then brainstorm ideas to exert some appropriate control if possible.  For example:

  • If the lunchroom at school is too loud, he might choose to wear earplugs or sit in a quieter spot.
  • If talking to a peer is stressful to him, he may want to rehearse with you beforehand what to say.
  • If it’s hard for him to raise his hand in class, he may have the teacher help him keep count of his progress, so he can try to improve his “score.”

It’s important in this process for you to ask your child for ideas, and ask your child what works for him or her.  He needs to begin to take ownership of his difficulties and make choices which help to minimize or improve them.  This skill is typically one of the goals of therapy – ask your therapist when and how you should start doing this.

Minimize Perfectionism

Anxious children sometimes have perfectionist parents.  This trait can be positive if it encourages us to work toward a goal, but negative if it damages your child’s self-esteem. 

  • Shift your focus to helping your child feel good about himself, learn skills and try. 
  • Focus on and reward effort rather than focusing only on results.
  • If your child expresses mild frustration and wants to give up on a task too easily, indicate something such as:   “You’re really trying hard, and I think you can do this.  Do you want to try for X more minutes and then decide if you need some help?”
  • When your child’s behavior is unacceptable, comment on the behavior, not your child:  “Gentle hands” or “Hitting is not allowed” rather than “Good boys don’t hit.”
  • Allow your child to make mistakes, and be a loving guide, rather than the disapproving boss.  Try “learn and re-do” – give your child some calm instructive feedback and then let him attempt the task again:  “That kind of talk is rude.  Please try again.”

Again, you may need to check with your therapist on how to handle perfectionism in yourself, and your child.

Do Not “Feed” Anxiety

When children react with anxiety about a situation which is safe and reasonable, they are actually asking us a question:  “Is everything OK?”  If we respond by over-reassuring them, indicating we feel sorry for them, comforting them with a worried look on our faces, or stepping in to “over help” them, we are responding with the answer:  “No, everything is not OK” or “You can’t handle this.”  Convey confidence that your child can handle reasonable stresses.

Don’t “Baby” Your Child Unnecessarily

Evaluate what expectations are appropriate for your child’s age, developmental/mental level, challenges, and skills.  If he or she has a disability or is significantly anxious, get help from a professional before deciding what expectations are reasonable and to determine the timing of any changes to his life that you want to make

Once you set your expectations, expect your child meet them without added fanfare.  Don’t assume if he whines, cries, tantrums or complains when you attempt new expectations, this means he is incapable of meeting them.   He may work through this phase if you make reasonable requests and don’t “feed the anxiety.” 

If any of these situations are physically difficult for your child or cause him significant anxiety, don’t “turn them over” to your child until you ask your child’s therapist how to approach this transition.

Respect Your Child’s Autonomy

Parenting a child with anxiety is in some ways the same as just “parenting a child.”  Realize that your child is growing up and needs his own space, activities, and feelings.  For example, allow free time, let your child entertain himself at times, occasionally ask for input or opinions where appropriate, let children express feelings, and respect privacy.

Need more help?  Call  (509) 448-1506 or Click to Email 

Deborah Skalabrin, MSW, LICSW

701 W. 7th Avenue, Suite 15
Spokane, WA  99204
(509) 448-1506 - Phone
(509) 624-7500 - FAX

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