Your child made it through the first week of school with flying colors. You walked them to the door of the building with only a few words of encouragement needed. You waited in the car to make sure they made it into the building without being bullied by a classmate or overlooked by a teacher. The family celebrated with words of praise for your child’s successful start. Now the hard part begins….the rest of the school year. For the parent of a highly anxious child, each day can become centered around managing a child’s worries and fears. The events that may bring up a small amount of curiosity in most children will escalate into full blown panic attacks or outbursts of negative behaviors in children who struggle with anxiety. Parents and teachers often feel helpless about how to address the problem and often experience heightened anxiety themselves. Days at school become an attempt to anticipate or alleviate anxiety provoking situations. If left unchecked, a child may withdraw socially or struggle with concentration which can impact the foundational layers of learning. When a family visits my counseling office, they have often exhausted the usual strategies for decreasing a child’s anxiety with little progress. Sometimes, parents carry a sense of shame that they are unable to help their child “deal with” their anxiety on their own. Other times, a parent is very familiar with anxiety themselves and is fearful that their children will have to endure a lifetime of debilitating worry. Well intentioned family members may try to give tips or question a child’s actions as deliberate defiance or emotional weakness. With all of the stresses of normal life impacting a family, it doesn’t take much for a highly anxious child to cause chaos in the household. Being a parent of an anxious child myself, I remember the days when I would dread picking my child up from school. I was never quite sure what to expect. Would my daughter be her delightful, high spirited self, or would she be high strung and emotionally explosive. Having never experienced high anxiety myself, I had no idea the emotional toll that entering the school gave her. I also did not appreciate the courage it took to face the daily onslaught of internal chaos that anxiety creates inside a person. Now that I am better informed, I marvel at the bravery and determination it took to continue stepping into the uncertainty of a school day for so many years. If you are a parent of an anxious child, getting help can make all the difference in your child’s school experience. Here are some tips to get started with addressing the “anxiety monster”:
Resist constant reassurance: Our natural instinct as a parent is to reassure a child that they do not have to worry. The more we do this, the more it reinforces inside a child that they need you to constantly tell them that they don’t have to worry, which leads to more worry and the need to have you reassure them they don’t have to worry. The cycle goes on and on as the child’s worry begins to “feed” off the need for constant reassurance. So tell your child that you think they can handle the situation, reassure them once, then don’t talk about it again.
Check Your Anxiety: If you are feeling anxious about your child’s ability to handle a situation, you can bet the child will pick up on your nervous energy. Because we are wired for social connection and survival instinct, the reaction of anxiety flows between parent and child quickly. If you are a parent who struggles with anxiety yourself, getting help is one of the most effective things you can do to impact your child. Learning how to respond to your child without triggering your own worry can greatly reduce overall levels of anxiety.
Don’t Avoid: The best way to get over being nervous about doing something is to do the very thing you want to avoid. Anxiety feeds off of avoidance, so the sooner you can help your child face their fears the more likely they will overcome the worry about the thing they dread. In the counseling world we call it “exposure therapy”. Taking small steps, the brain and body can become adjusted to the situation so that anxiety decreases and confidence increases.
Mindfulness Matters: There is quite a buzz about mindfulness these days and for good reason. Our bodies will send signals and if we pay attention there are ways to work with emotions to reduce anxiety. Learning how to notice stress and train the mind to let thoughts come and go without reacting has been shown to help kids lower their anxiety levels. Of course this works with adults too, so practicing together is a great way to learn this important skills. My favorite is the app “Headspace” as it has fun animations and guided meditations that both kids and adults enjoy.
Consider Counseling: Therapy teaches kids how to understand and work with their anxiety rather than trying to “get rid” of uncomfortable feelings. A counselor will help them notice and name their emotions, identify the thoughts connected to those emotions and discover effective coping skills they can use if anxiety comes up. By noticing anxiety early, kids learn how to challenge thoughts and figure out if anxiety is trying to trick them into reacting. Counseling works best for younger children if parents are an active part of the process so they can learn and practice skills at home. Constant anxiety does not have to be a way of life. Working together you and your child can learn how to stop the cycle of worry and get back to doing the things you enjoy.