Anxiety is persuasive and determined and it’s masterful at organising families, days and lives around itself. If you have a child who struggles with anxiety, take heart – it’s very possible to change anxiety’s heavy hand in your child’s life. With guidance, information and strategies, anxiety can be given the place is deserves, which is somewhere well away from centre stage.
First things first. Anxiety in children – how to stop giving it oxygen.
It’s very likely that if you have an anxious child, you would have tried everything to try to make a difference. There are no right or wrong ways to parent an anxious child, but there are some things that will work well from the outset, some that will be handy in the short-term but messy in the long run, and some that will be a monumental disaster from the beginning. The only common thing about these strategies is that they are all likely to come from a place of deep love (maybe sometimes tinged with desperation – completely understandable) but always motivated by love.
You will always be the expert on your child, and it’s important to ‘go with your gut’ on what works best. Here are some things to think about that in the short-term might seem to work well, but which might actually be keeping your child’s anxiety plumped up, strong and well-fed.
Avoidance can disguise itself in many different ways. Sometimes it will look obvious, such as refusing to try out for extra-curricular activities (‘I’m not really interested in playing soccer/ doing the school play this year’), or going to the library at lunch to avoid the playground. Avoidance can also look less obvious, such as the child who goes over and over his or her homework (to avoid making a mistake), or the who takes ages to make a decision (to avoid making the wrong one).
Avoidance is not your child trying to be difficult or manipulative. It certainly isn’t that. If the behaviour is driven by anxiety, it means your child is being steered by a brain that is warning them of danger. The powerful primal instincts that have kept us safe by directing us away from furry predators, dark alleys or oncoming traffic, are the same instincts that are driving your child to avoid whatever feels threatening for them. Whether the rest of the world thinks the threat is reasonable or rational is irrelevant – it’s reasonable and rational for them and that’s what matters.
When children show overwhelming fear or anxiety, it’s completely understandable that a loving parent would want to protect them from those bad feelings. Sometimes, whether through exhaustion or a lack of options, it can feel as though the only way to soothe their distress is to support their avoidance. This can lead to short-term relief for everyone (which sometimes is desperately needed!) but avoidance has a frustrating way of making things worse in the long run and keeping the anxiety well fed. Here’s how:
• Avoidance takes away the opportunity to learn that fear is a warning, not a prediction. It gets in the way of kids learning that whatever is worrying them most likely won’t happen at all, and that if it does, they are resilient, strong and resourceful enough to cope. Instead, they learn that the best way to deal with an unfamilliar or difficult situation is to avoid it.
• When avoidance happens too often, it can become the default way of responding to the world. This is when the world can start to feel like a dangerous place. The risk is that children will start feeling as though they always need to be on the watch for trouble, which can be exhausting for everyone.
• Avoidance teaches kids to steer themselves away from unpredictable or unfamiliar situations. They become less willing to experiment and explore the world, looking instead for experiences that come with security and comfort. The more they do this, the smaller their world becomes.
Avoidance is a completely understandable, intuitive response but the more something is avoided, the more that avoidance is confirmed as the only way to feel safe. Sometimes avoidance will be a sensible option, and sometimes it will interrupt their reach into the world.
2. Protecting or Overprotecting?
When there is a threat, protective behaviour is part of being a loving and committed parent. It’s what turns parents into superheroes. Protective behaviour might include supporting avoidance, organising the environment to make it feel safer, or changing plans to accommodate the child’s anxiety. Sometimes this is exactly what’s needed, but when it happens too often and too unnecessarily, it can get in the way of children discovering their own courage, strength and resilience. It can also stop them from realising that the world, though unfamiliar at times, isn’t always as scary as it feels.
3. Excessive reassurance.
If your child has had a genuine fright or is about to do something brave, there’s nothing like a cuddle and heartfelt reassurance to soften the hurt and steady the ground beneath them. Even as adults, having someone tell us things will be okay is a comforting, nurturing and a completely lovely thing to hear. Like so many things we humans love though, reassurance can become unhelpful when it becomes excessive. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful, and sometimes it can lead to anxiety.
Excessive reassurance can unintentionally undermine the capacity for children to grow their own confidence and self-support. If you are the one who always provides the scaffold between an anxious though and a brave response, it will be even more difficult for an anxious child to find their own.
4. Modelling: They’re watching and learning everything you do.
Your children will look to you for how to interpret the world and the things that happen in it. It’s how little humans become healthy, competent big ones. They will always learn what they see more surely than what they are told. If you are quick to show anxiety towards the world or the people in it, avoid difficult or unfamiliar situations, or are hesitant to trust your own capacity to cope, they will learn to do the same.
Anxiety isn’t easy to turn off. Despite your very best intentions, if you naturally have your own tilt towards anxiety, it will be very easy to transmit to your child the message that the world is unsafe. This does NOT means that you are the cause of your child’s anxiety. It definitely doesn’t mean this. Anxiety is a physiological response and is in no way explained by modelling. If your child already tends towards anxiety though, it’s very possible that he or she will pick up on the things you do that support their view of the world as being a dangerous place, and that avoidance is the way to manage that danger.
For a child who has no predisposition towards anxiety, watching you do the things that soften your own anxiety, might not make any difference at all. With an anxious child though, your anxious behaviours will work to firm up theirs. The good news is that with this much influence, they will also be watching and learning from your brave, resilient behaviours.
But if you can influence their anxiety, you can influence their resilience.
If you tend towards anxiety yourself, this will also be one of your most valuable assets in supporting your child with his or her own anxiety. An anxious brain is also a wonderfully sensitive brain, and it will fuel a strong capacity to connect with your child. Your experiences and the wisdom you would have gained from dealing with your own anxiety will be a great source of information and strength for your child. The key is to find the balance between using this insight to fuel brave behaviour, and not anxiety.
Anything you can do to tolerate and manage your own stress and anxiety will be powerful for your child. They watch everything you do and want to be just like you. The power you have to heal them is remarkable. Here are some ways to do that.
Be careful not to pre-empt their anxiety.
It’s important that kids are encouraged to talk about their feelings, but try to avoid questions that will lead their anxiety. For example, if you know they have something coming up that might trigger their anxiety, watch them and be ready, but avoid asking leading questions such as, ‘Are you worried about what’s going to happen when you get to school?’ As an alternative, give them room to explore their own feelings, ‘How do you feel about school today?’
Support them, not their anxiety.
Anxiety can be a sly little pony when it comes to your support. It can have you believing that you’re supporting your child, when anxiety is actually stealing your comfort and getting in the way of your child’s brave behaviour. Excessive reassurance, changing plans to accommodate the anxiety, or supporting avoidance too often are all intended to support your child, but they can actually make it easier for anxiety to flourish. To avoid this, validate your child’s fears, then gently encourage them towards brave behaviour. This way, they’ll feel the comfort and security of you, without letting anxiety steer them away from the things that can grow them.
You don’t need to get rid of all of their anxiety.
The goal is not to get rid of all of their anxiety, but to ease it back to a level that feels okay. If your child has been struggling with anxiety for a while, it’s very likely that there will only be two ways he or she experiences it – on or off. For your child, any anxiety will probably be experienced as bad anxiety, and there will be no such thing as ‘a little bit anxious’, or ‘anxious, but in a good way’.
You might feel tempted to dampen all of your child’s anxiety by overly reassuring your child or with other protective behaviours. The problem with this is that the fears your child has will likely be very valid ones and it will be impossible to get rid of them completely. You can’t promise that your child will have a great time at school, or that he or she will love the new teacher or will never make a mistake in an exam. Your child won’t believe you anyway – way too clever for that – and it also runs the risk of having them feel dismissed, or as though you don’t ‘get it’. The important message is that being scared about something, doesn’t mean that ‘something’ will topple them. Your child might have an awful day at school or make a mistake in the exam – but they will be okay. What they are learning is that your expectations are realistic, and that you have absolute faith in their ability to cope with the tough stuff.
If we pretend that we always have it together, we are very subtly giving our kids the message that they should never struggle either. Kids will find it easier to learn from your brave behaviour when they know it doesn’t always come easily. Show them that you also worry or feel anxious sometimes AND that you can cope with that. This will have much more sway with them than having them think that you never get phased by anything at all. When it feels appropriate, gently share your own worries with your child, along with how you’re going to cope.
Of course, it’s always important to be careful with what or how much you share – you don’t want your stress to become their stress – but generally, if you’re okay, they’ll be okay.
Try something like … ‘Well this is something new. I’m a little bit nervous because I don’t know anyone there, but when I think about it, the chances of something happening that I can’t deal with are pretty small.’ Show them that you believe in your capacity to cope – that’s the part you want them to learn. ‘I’ve been to plenty of these and I’ve never made a mess of things. Even if I did say something silly, I know I’ll be okay.’
Help them find the answers themselves.
This is a powerful alternative to overly reassuring them that they’re safe. It can be wildly difficult to hold off on reassurance, particularly when all you want to do is scoop them up and protect them from the hard edges of the world. What’s healthier though, is setting them on a course that will empower them to find their own strength and resources to manage their anxiety themselves.
When they look for reassurance, gently direct them to find the answers themselves. If, for example, your child asks, ‘What if you’re not there to pick me up on time?’ Rather than reassuring them excessively that you will be there (which might not make much of a dent in their anxiety anyway) try, ‘Let’s talk about that. How many times have I been late before?’ ‘What’s happened before when I’ve been late?’ ‘What do you think might happen if I’m not there right on time?’ The idea is to start steering them towards easing their own anxious minds, and gently uncovering their own resilience and capacity to cope. When you start to see a shift, let them know. ‘I love the way you are starting to think about this by yourself.’
Explain your anxiety and get them talking about theirs.
Talking about your own stress and anxiety in an empowered, honest, open way will give your children permission to talk about and claim their own. The more they are able to own it, the more they will have the power to change it.
For example, if your morning didn’t quite go as planned and the looming likelihood of being late to work unleashed a little ‘voice escalation’ in you, try something like, ‘This morning I started to worry about being late to an important meeting. I shouldn’t have yelled at you and I’m really sorry. There are other things that I could have done that would have been better for both of us. I think if we get more organised in the mornings it will be easier for us to get out the door. You can be a wonderful help with that.’
Teach them the language.
The mind and the body are strongly connected and self-talk is the very powerful link between the two. Self-talk influences feelings, which then influence behaviour. If you have an anxious child, their self-talk is likely to be something like, ‘I don’t want to,’ ‘it’s really scary,’ ‘what if something goes wrong?’.
A simple way to redirect their self-talk to something more empowering is by a process called ‘reframing’. This involves redefining ‘anxious’ feelings as ‘excited’ ones – but you might have to go first to show them how it’s done. Research has found that a simple shift in the way anxiety is framed is a powerful way to ease anxiety.
The reason for this is that anxiety and excitement are very similar. They are both highly alert states, and they have similar physiological processes such as sweating, butterflies and a racy heart. The difference is the focus. Anxiety focuses on the negatives of a situation (‘What if I say something silly?’) whereas excitement focuses on what’s to gain (‘I’m going to have fun when I settle in.’) Labelling a feeling as ‘anxiety’ shifts the focus to potential threats and sets up thoughts of everything that could go wrong. Relabelling the feeling as ‘excited’ brings to mind more positive, thoughts of what might happen. The focus is shifted towards the opportunities rather than the threats.
Modelling this in your own anxious moments will help teach your children the language they can use to support themselves through their own anxiety. For example, rather than, ‘I hate going to these things when I don’t know anybody. I really don’t want to go,’ try, ‘I’m feeling a little anxious about being in a room with so many people I don’t know, but I know I’ll be okay. I’m kind of excited about doing something brave. I’ll enjoy it when I settle in.’
Acknowledge any brave behaviour, (but you already knew that).
With all children, every time you attend to their brave behaviour, rather than their anxious behaviour, you’re helping them to see themselves in a different and stronger light.
There will be many things your child might do that won’t seem like a big deal, but which will be a huge deal for them. It’s all relative. Anxious kids are brave kids because they are constantly facing situations that challenge them, and they push through them even with anxiety working hard to drag them back to somewhere smaller and safer. Brave behaviour is whatever is brave for them, and has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else. It’s one of the beautiful things about being human – we don’t all have to do it in the same way.
And finally …
Make the shift towards new ways of responding to them gently. There’s no hurry. Changing the way you do things too suddenly could leave them feeling confused and even more anxious.
Anxiety is a part of life. Every time we push against our own boundaries and try something new, there’s going to be anxiety in there somewhere. It’s healthy and normal and it lets us know that brave behaviour is needed. For our children to be completely rid of any anxiety, they would have to live well within their comfort zones. As cosy and as wanted as this might be, they also need to grow and push against their boundaries from time to time, so those boundaries don’t tighten around them.
Kids will always look through your lens, and when they see the pictures of themselves that you see, as someone who is compassionate, resilient, strong and brave and able to walk through fearful, anxious times with courage, resilience and strength, this is what they will see in themselves.
You might also like …
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.