How to Help a Child with Anxiety – Expert Tips for Parents

Signs A Child has Anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and their parents. Especially right now, when our children and teens are not attending in-person school, and not hanging out with their friends in person. But how can you, as a parent, tell if your child’s anxiety is interfering with their everyday life? What are the common signs you need to watch out for and how can you help your child with anxiety?

Take Our Quick Anxiety Quiz – 14 Key Questions to Ask

Here are some ways you can determine if your child has anxiety and if anxiety is interfering with their everyday life.Does your child often complain about headaches, tummy aches, or not feeling well, and there is no medical reason?

  • Is your child often coming home and has not eaten their lunch or snacks?
  • Does your child refuse to use the bathrooms except at home?
  • Does your child have trouble falling asleep?
  • Does your child talk about not wanting to go to school?
  • Does your child not have any school friends?
  • Does your child have frequent meltdowns or is overly emotional?
  • Does your child ask a lot of “what if” questions or talks often about their fears and worries?
  • Does your child repeatedly erase or restart their school assignments stating it’s not neat enough or that it’s not perfect?
  • Does your child avoid social situations that most other children enjoy – going to parties, joining a team, or even learning a new skill like riding a bike?
  • Have teachers mentioned that your child seems nervous working in groups or speaking in class?
  • Does your child change clothes several times a day out of nervousness or because they sweat a lot?
  • Does your child experience shortness of breath or a racing heart for no apparent reason?
  • Does your child worry excessively about events that are highly unlikely to happen? (the bus crashing, your death, a fire at school or at home)
  • How many questions did you say yes to? The higher the point total, the greater the likelihood that your child is showing signs of anxiety.

What Can YOU as a Parent do to Help Your Child with Anxiety?

Pay attention to and validate your child’s feelings.

Start using words to describe your child’s emotions. Help your child develop an emotional vocabulary so they can label and express how they are feeling. When you validated how your child is feeling. they experience a reduction in the intensity of their emotions. Reducing the intensity of the emotion allows them to move through the meltdown faster and it opens your child up to problem solving or pushing through a difficult situation or task. By validating the emotional experience of your children, you, as a parent, can help them learn how to handle emotions that can lead to tantrums, meltdowns, or conflict within the family. Helping your child or teen learn to self-regulate is one of the most important life skills a child must learn. Validation allows your child to feel heard, understood, and accepted. 

Let your child know that everyone feels anxious from time to time, and they can learn to overcome this feeling. Teach your younger child that emotions come and go just like dark clouds and rain. Sometimes it rains and then the rain stops to make way for sunshine. Negative emotions can and will make way for happy thoughts and feelings. Sometimes you are incredibly happy, for example, on your birthday, and other times you may be anxious or sad, but these emotions do not stay forever. Emotions come and go.  Even anxiety comes and goes. Most emotions do not last forever.

Be understanding that your child may need more time.

Understand that your child goes at a slower pace and you cannot push your child to learn new skills faster or join in an activity right away. If your child is slow to warm up to new situations or events, give your child the permission to stand on the sidelines and watch what is happening. Talk about what is going to happen before they go to a new event. Let your child know you will stay with them for a while as long as they are interacting with other people at the party.  Role-play how to deal with different situations and social events. Keep on going to events and social gatherings even if your child is anxious. Avoiding events that make us anxious is not helpful in the long term as your child does not learn how to overcome challenges.

Express confidence in your child’s abilities.

Express confidence that you believe your child will do the best they can. Let your child know that sometimes things will not go smoothly or perfectly. Make them aware that they will have setbacks, such as failing a test or forgetting some of their lines when having to speak in front of the class. While that may be upsetting or embarrassing, it’s going to be OK. Be realistic that sometimes we do not perform perfectly, and that too, is OK. One of the best tips on how to help a child with anxiety is to realistically express your confidence that your child will be able to manage life’s challenges.

Encourage and teach your child to tolerate their anxiety.

As a parent, you need to teach your child that we can tolerate unpleasant feelings. Anxiety is unpleasant and it is normal to feel anxious at times. For example, you may talk about being anxious when you were thinking of asking someone out on a date or when you went for your driving test, or even when you wrote exams at school. Talk about how it can be normal to feel some anxiety when we start a new situation. Talk about how you were anxious your first day at your new job meeting everyone. Share how you managed your anxiety and realized there wasn’t really anything to worry about, and how you eventually felt comfortable in your new setting. Your goal is to be supportive but not accommodate your child’s anxieties. Help your child take small steps towards overcoming their worries and fears. 

Head over to the library or your local book store to read up on the subject. You can also browse the Internet for informational resources.

Here are some good books to check out that can help kids with anxiety:

Reading can help start the conversation about managing anxiety, give stories on how other kids overcame their anxiety, and provide exercises and skills for older children and teens.

Listen up, Moms and Dads! Learn How to Manage Your Own Anxiety 

Mom and Dad, if you are a worrier, now is the time to learn how to manage your anxiety so you model healthy ways to manage anxiety. It is important that you model calm, positive ways to manage your stress. We all get stressed from time to time, but if yelling, freaking out or avoiding situations is your method, be aware that your kids are learning to copy your behaviour. Children take their cues from parents. They are always watching what we do. Unfortunately, we do transmit our own fears and anxiety to our kids. Learn how to tolerate your own anxiety and your kids will learn how to work through stressful situations too. Label and talk about your emotions. Being an adult is stressful. And it’s OK to say you find certain situations stressful and what you do to manage your stress and anxiety. Give your kids the confidence to learn that stress is real, but it is manageable by staying calm and being proactive.

Teach Your Child How to Breathe and Reduce their Anxiety

Teach your child how breathing slowly can help them reduce their anxiety. My favourite breathing technique is the 4-7-8 breathing routine by Dr. Andrew Weil. Like he says, you need to do this every day. Many of our psychotherapists use this technique with their clients and use it as a self-care technique. This is a wonderful technique you can use throughout the day if you need to recentre yourself or use it at nighttime when you need to fall back asleep.

For little children, we use a hand technique to help them visualize breathing by getting them to trace their hand while they breathe.

Or you can use blowing bubbles as well to help them slow their breath down. Remember, every little bit helps. We may not conquer the anxiety dragon today, but over time, this unwelcome dragon will get smaller and smaller if we keep working on defeating it together. If you see that your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, reach out for help by talking with one of our therapists today, book an appointment online.  At Family-Therapy in Ottawa, we’re here to listen and together, we can help your child kick anxiety to the curb.