Anxiety or fear is part of our survival instinct and is a normal part of growing up. When faced with a threatening situation, our brains and bodies respond by getting us ready to ‘flea the scene’. Our hearts race, the adrenaline kicks in and we’re ready to run.
However, some children react more quickly or intensely to situations they are afraid of, or find threatening and find it harder to get their anxious feelings under control.
When a child suffers from anxiety, it’s easy for even the most well-meaning parent to fall into a negative cycle – of not wanting their child to suffer, yet actually exacerbating their child’s anxiety.
This happens when as parents, we anticipate our children’s fears and then try to shield them from their impact. The best way to tackle anxiety is by repeated exposure to things that make you anxious. The more exposure a child has to the things that make them anxious the less anxious they will feel about the situation.
Here are some suggestions to help your child cope better with anxiety.
No one wants to see a child unhappy, but the best way to help children overcome anxiety isn’t to remove the things that trigger it. We need to help them to learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as best as they can, even when they’re anxious. And as a result of that, the anxiety will reduce over time.
It seems obvious that avoiding things that make us afraid will make children feel better in the short term – however, in the long term, it reinforces the anxiety.
If we remove a child from an uncomfortable situation or remove the thing that is making a child afraid, that child is learning that avoidance is how you deal with the situation and confirming in their mind that situation really was scary.
You can’t promise a child that what they fear isn’t realistic. Life isn’t easy – and we all fail at tests, get nervous speaking in public and at times get laughed at by classmates. It’s important to express confidence that even though these things happen and make your child feel uncomfortable, your child will be ok. They will be able to manage it, and as they face their fears, their anxiety level will drop over time. By being positive, and by ensuring that their expectations are realistic – you help your child believe that they can handle anxiety and discomfort.
It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. It’s reasonable that a child might be scared about going to the doctor, especially if they’re due for an injection. While you don’t want to discount this fear, you also don’t want to amplify it. Listen, be understanding, and help them to process why they’re anxious, and encourage them to feel strong enough to face their fear. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.”
Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, but try not to ask leading questions. Asking questions like “Are you anxious about the swimming carnival?” feeds into a cycle of anxiety. Alternatively, ask open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling about the upcoming swimming carnival?”
Sometimes intentionally or not, we indicate to a child that they should be afraid of something. As an example, let’s say your child has had a negative experience with a dog. The next time they’re around a dog, you might be anxious about how they will respond – and you might unintentionally send a message that they should be worried. Watch your body language – and remember to help your child face their fear.
As adults, we have all experienced fear or anxiety – in some shape or form. The first time we learn to drive, it’s common to feel anxiety – but as we continue to face that fear, and get better, in the process, our anxiety reduces. That’s called the ‘habituation curve’. It’s important to let your child know that you appreciate the work it takes to tolerate anxiety in order to achieve things. It’s really about encouraging your child to engage in things that scare them and to understand that fear and anxieties are normal parts of life.
When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time is the lead-up. So it’s important that as parents we try to reduce the anticipatory period as much as possible. If a child is nervous about going to a doctor’s appointment, you don’t want to launch into a discussion about it two hours before you go; that’s likely to get your child more wound up. Try to shorten that time period and keep to a minimum.
It is pretty common that our fears are worse than the reality of something bad happening. So it helps to talk through what would happen if your child’s fear came true. A child who’s anxious about separating from you might worry about what would happen if you didn’t come to pick them up. By putting together a plan with the child for that possible scenario you can reduce their uncertainty and fear of that possibility.
There are lots of ways you can help children to handle anxiety – and the most important one is to show them how you cope with it yourself. Children are perceptive and will watch and witness the way you handle stress and anxiety.
Parents and carers play an essential role in helping children to manage their anxiety. When coping skills and brave behaviour is rewarded and practised at school and in the home, children can learn to face their fears, take reasonable risks, and ultimately gain confidence.