Anxiety can affect anyone of any age. It is something that is confusing and difficult, especially for a child and requires healthy coping tools to manage and alleviate. While it hurts to see your child hurting or struggling, here are five ways you can offer support to a child with anxiety.
1. Recognize the Signs
A child with anxiety can look like what you’d expect a child with anxiety to look like. Nervous. Fidgety. Jittery. He can also be moody or irritable. He can be distracted or disobedient, uncooperative or downright belligerent. Children with generalized anxiety disorder may worry excessively about certain things, like grades, which often manifests itself in perfectionism, persistent approval-seeking or negative self-image. Stomach aches and headaches can both be symptoms of anxiety, as can trouble sleeping. Typically, the least recognizable anxiety looks calm. It is similar to the body’s reflexive response when it thinks it is drowning—no flailing or yelling; everything focused on breathing.
An anxious child may not be able to speak in particular circumstances, a phenomenon known as selective mutism. This is often linked to social anxiety disorder, which is fear of social and performance situations like starting a conversation or being called on in class. Children can also experience panic attacks and phobias. It is important that children suffering severe anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, receive professional help. Recognizing the signs is the first step to supporting a child with anxiety.
2. Remain Calm
If your child is struggling to do what is expected of him, consider why. If the problem is anxiety, getting upset will only make things harder. Children look to adults for clues as to how they should act and react in various situations. If you get anxious in response to your child’s anxiety, you reinforce the reasonableness of their discomfort. If you get angry or are dismissive, your child may think there is something wrong with himself, which will increase his anxiety. If your child cries or acts out in anxiety, do not immediately remove her from the situation. Removing her reinforces the belief that negative behaviour is a way to escape a stressor and that she should run away if she feels stressed. While it may help overcome unpleasant feelings of anxiety in the short-term, it will ultimately reinforce anxiety.
3. Respect Feelings, But Don’t Empower Them
Anxiety is unpleasant. Don’t disregard that. Do you struggle with anxiety? Do you acknowledge it? If you don’t acknowledge there is a problem, you can’t effectively deal with it. Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Although your child’s fear or concerns may seem unreasonable, they are real. Encourage your child to talk about what is bothering him and what he is afraid will happen. You can’t control whether or not someone is mean to your child or if he’ll make a mistake in front of his class or get hurt or lose someone he loves, so don’t assure him that these things won’t happen by telling him everything will be okay.
We all know things are not always okay, that bad things happen and life can hurt. We all need to learn that, despite these things, we can be okay. Teach your child to think about what she is thinking about and not just let negative thoughts trample through her mind. Teach her to examine the negative thoughts that fuel her fear. The older a child is, the more capable she is of looking at her environment to assess the reasonableness of her fear. Teach her to debate her own thoughts and confront them with God’s truth.
If you know your child has trouble with transitions, your family routine should have margins to accommodate that. We tend to be overscheduled and try to cram so many activities into our days that we’re constantly rushed. If getting ready to go out the door is typically a battle, try starting earlier. This takes pressure off you and your child and helps everyone remain calmer.
Although cutting out activities simply because they can trigger anxiety is a bad idea, you and your family may not need to participate in all that you do. Are there reasonable modifications you can make to your family schedule for everyone’s sake, without empowering your child’s anxiety by making it the focus? What role does faith play in your family’s schedule? Is it a priority? We need room for family time, and family faith times, so our kids can develop enduring faith despite distracting feelings.
Get to know and understand your child’s triggers and typical responses. Then help your child recognize and understand them. Help her deal with any trauma that may underlie a particular fear. Help her develop reasonable expectations of herself and the situations that make her anxious, as well as challenge perceived limitations. Slapping a label on someone is unhelpful, but naming something hard gives power over it. It is anxiety, not a nameless, overpowering monster.
There is no quick fix to anxiety and it is unlikely you can cure your child’s. Remember the goal is to teach your child to manage his anxiety and take on stressful situations with reasonable expectations. Some anxieties are overcome by facing them consistently and surviving. Some may never completely go away, but that is okay. Healthy coping is a skill we all need. Our weaknesses remind us that we need God. Help your child learn to turn to Him in all circumstances and let her see you do the same.
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