This guest post is written by Lisa E. Hill, a Child Development Consultant who works with families struggling with everyday parenting issues and with parents of children with special needs. Using her extensive experience working in daycare centers, at schools, and with individual families in their homes, Lisa strives to simplify impossible parenting by offering strategies and suggestions, resources, and one-on-one support to families worldwide.
I’ve had many people ask, what exactly is anxiety? According to anxietycentre.com, “anxiety occurs when we behave (think and act) in an apprehensive manner, such as when worrying about an event or situation”. For those who have never experienced the wake of anxiety, it really does come as a mysterious and hidden ‘thing’. Or to some, it’s all in your head, right?
It sure is in our heads. Imbedded there for good, making a cozy little home where when you least expect it, or when you expect it the most. Like a brick shattering a window or like an angry bear–it’s there and it will never go away! It’s scary, and for a parent of a child riddled with this disorder–and maybe a parent with absolutely no experience with anxiety yourself–how do you help your child? What can you do?
As a child, I was plagued with anxiety. It affected my schooling and my social life. If it was not for my amazing mother and the skills she had, including her soft comforting patience, I would not be the person I am today. In fact, I still call my mom when anxiety starts to get the best of me, and she is still there reminding me to use the skills she taught me years ago. “Have you talked to your anxiety?” she asks.
How To Recognize Anxiety
Children with anxiety are labeled as “worry warts”. They are the ones who often ask the “what if” questions. These children tend to worry about their mother or father dying, their pets dying, their house burning down, or their peers laughing at them during school. Some become fixated on order and objects being a certain way before they can leave a room (i.e., Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD). And some times, more often than not, their worries are brushed aside, quickly quieted with the “it’s all in your head” reaction. Unfortunately, this results in the anxiety manifesting to even greater levels, leaving some children drowning in their worry.
As parents, how do we support our children with anxiety? The following four steps are critical:
- Recognize that your child has anxiety. Whether they have been diagnosed with it or not, or to whatever degree of anxiety they are experiencing, recognize that it is indeed happening.
- Educate yourself. Read about anxiety in children to learn how it can affect them.
- Step back and assess the situation. Write down your observations and questions. How is your child acting, thinking, and feeling? Is the anxiety affecting your child’s schooling, social life, extra curricular activities, and family relationships? Make sure you really evaluate the severity of the anxiety.
- Seek counseling. If you are questioning whether your child needs professional help, please go and get it.
Teach Your Children about Anxiety
Educate your children about anxiety just as you educated yourself. Let them know that it happens to MANY people and it is very common. Share your personal stories if you have any about how anxiety has affected you. The goal here is to ensure that your children understand what anxiety is, that they have it, and that they can learn to tolerate and manage it with the right tools. You are providing comfort by letting them know you are going to do your best to help and support them.
Talk It Out Approach
The following two-part process is key to providing your children with the skills necessary to tolerate their anxiety. It will take time, patience, and a lot of verbal support.
- Ask your children to write down their worries. If they are too young to write, then you can do it for them. Include every single worry. No worry is too stupid or silly.
- Have them write down how they act, think, and feel with each worry. Ask them questions like: How does each worry make you feel? How does it change your thinking? What does it do to you physically?
- Guide them in talking to their worries. This is the game changer. Yes, we are going to start talking to our worries! Have them write down what they can say to each worry. If they are worried about their pet dying, for example, perhaps they can say “I know eventually he will die but I am taking him to the vet for his regular shots, feeding him great food, and he’s getting lots of exercise. He’s healthy and I am doing my best”. Many of these worries will start with “what if?”. Teach them to answer that question using a “what if?” response. Here’s an example:
Child: What if the house burns down?
Parent’s response: Well, what if it does? It will be sad and we will hope that the fire department can save it but if not, we will buy another house or build one. We will have to buy all new stuff. But we have family and friends who will be there for us to help us out. And, dad and I do everything in our power to make sure the house is safe so fires won’t happen.
How does this help? You have recognized the worry and validated that it could happen, but you have also provided a preventative strategy. This process of talking directly to our worries is so critical because it helps calm our anxiety before it escalates to a crisis situation like a panic attack.
- Review. Look back at the notes with your child after three to four days. Ask your child if anything has changed. Worries tend to change, so edit your notes. Repeat the steps in Part 1 if you added any new worries.
- Communicate. Always keep a healthy line of communication open with your children. Ask them if they used the ‘talk it out’ skills for any of their worries. If so, what did they say to their worries? Was this a helpful exercise to easy their anxiety?
- Continue. Do not set it and forget it! You will eventually get to a point where instead of completing all the steps and writing everything down, you can verbally discuss it with your child. Keep it up by checking in with your children and asking how they are feeling. Have they had to talk to their anxiety lately?
Keeping Anxiety In Check
Anxiety can get the best of us and our children. It is so important to be patient and to give your child the reassurance they need so they know you will always be there to help and comfort them. Eventually when your child comes to you looking for support, you can simply ask “have you talked to your anxiety?” That may be all they need—just a simple reminder—to feel calmer and happier. They will have a new sense of balance and strength to know they are BIGGER than their anxiety.
What experience have you had talking to your children about their anxiety?