By: Dyan Eybergen BA,RN,ACPI
Does your child exhibit any of the following behaviours?
- Clinging, crying, and/or tantrums when you are away from him/her?
- Constant worry where it is affecting his/her ability to fall and or stay asleep on his/her own?
- Avoiding situations or places because of fears?
- Missing school or other activities because of frequent stomachaches or headaches?
If you answered YES to one or more of those questions, your child may be experiencing a disordered amount of anxiety.
Anxiety is manifested in the body; it is a normal physiological response and can motivate us to do our best in challenging times and help us to adapt in dangerous situations. Anxiety becomes problematic when the body responds in the absence of any real danger. Parents play an integral role in helping their child or teen manage anxiety. Here are 5 things parent’s can do (or not do) to help their anxious child.
- Be Supportive! The physical symptoms of anxiety are real for the child and are so uncomfortable to deal with. Support your child by validating how awful anxiety feels and teach relaxation techniques such as calm breathing and progressive muscle relaxation that will combat the stress response your child is having and help the child calm down.
- Reduce Stress! Develop routines the child can depend on. Be consistent with consequences to misbehavior so the child learns what the expectations are and do as much as you can to prepare the child for new experiences so as to reduce fears of the unknown.
- Avoid Giving Excessive Reassurance! When we overly reassure a child by checking and re-checking locked doors, or driving them to school because he/she fears taking the bus, or letting him/her sleep in our bed due to a fear of the dark, we give the child a very clear message that he/she has every right to be afraid and cannot manage anxiety without a parent. As well intentioned as parental reassurance is, it only increases a child’s anxiety and doesn’t teach the child how to help him/her self.
- Avoid Avoidance! Avoidance is a default maladaptive way of coping for most children. When they fear something they will avoid being exposed to it. Parents need to help their children experience their fears within a safe context where they begin to realize that most often their worry about the fear produces more anxiety than the fear experience itself. Chronic avoidance only increases the child’s fear and does nothing to teach management skills.
- Know when to get help! If your child’s anxiety is interfering with his/her level of functioning (i.e. missing school, isolating from friends, refusing to participate in new experiences, unable to separate from a parent, experiencing panic attacks) it is time to seek professional help. Find a clinician trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help you and your child learn strategies to manage anxiety.
Children with anxiety disorders do not “grow out of it" and if the anxiety is left untreated, it can lead to other problems later in life, such as depression, school dropout, dysfunctional relationships, increased substance use, and an overall decreased quality of life.