Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in America. As of 2000, 8-10% of children were diagnosed with some form of anxiety disorder. Many parents have asked me what they can do to make their anxious child feel less worried, fearful, and panicked. Of course, there are hundreds of tips and pointers for parents of anxious children. Parents need to look no further than Google to find everything from specific coping skills, to social stories, to self-soothing charts and behavioral strategies. However, in this article, I am intentionally targeting the more-subtle (and less talked-about) powers of the parent of the anxious child.
Like any mental health condition, anxiety is caused by a combination of nature (genes) and nurture (experiences). At least a dozen times a week, I say to parents, “You didn’t cause your child’s anxiety (unless you are an evil genetic scientist), but there are things you can do and not do which will make it worse or better.” Here are few other things I find myself saying over and over to parents with anxious children:
- That’s normal. Ignore it. Donna, if you catastrophize Maddy’s nail-biting, guess what Maddy is going to feel even MORE? That’s right: Anxious.
- That’s normal. Validate it. Donna, I’m sure you can remember how nervous you were to start a new school when you were a child. Teach Maddy that her uneasiness is completely understandable and even relatable! Teach her not to fear her own feelings.
- That IS “anxiety,” but resist temptation to deny anything bad might happen. Maddy is vomiting every Monday in anticipation of her spelling test? Throwing a surprise party because she spelled “pterodactyl” correctly may seem like a great way to shore up her confidence, but over-enthusiasm actually adds to her pressure. Instead of telling our kids with gusto that they “got this,” let them know the world will not end if they don’t “got this.” That same sentiment also goes for social bumps and bruises. The message “everyone at your new school will love you!” absolutely backfires, while the message “some people may not be friendly, and that’s okay” does not.
- That IS “anxiety,” but resist temptation to jump on the anxious train. Donna, it’s great that you empathize with Maddy’s discomfort in a crowd, but don’t get SO carried away that Maddy comes to EXPECT a riot, a knife-fight, and twenty back-to-back panic attacks every time she goes to a concert. Saying, “Yah, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to have strangers in such close quarters” is an empathic response. Saying “I KNOW! People are dangerous and unpredictable criminals, and there will probably be a shooting at the concert!” is hijacking the anxious train and running it off the tracks.
- That IS “anxiety,” but resist temptation to minimize your child’s perspective. Okay, Donna, so now that you’re not OVER-empathizing, make sure you don’t just ignore Maddy’s perspective all-together when it doesn’t make rational sense to you. Sure, you knew that you were perfectly safe driving Maddy over the bridge, but it made HER terrified, and it’s perfectly okay to say “I feel for you and wish I could make it better” even though you still have to go over the bridge.
- That IS “anxiety,” but resist temptation to rescue your child. Donna, next time Maddy has a panic attack in school, the school will allow her to use her coping skills in the health room before she goes back to class. If you pick her up every time she has a panic attack, you will be solidifying the coping skill of “avoidance” and essentially paralyzing her to have any power over her own life. The idea is to allow her to practice coping skills and only make accommodations that offer her opportunities for growth (for example, Maddy might give her speech at lunch time for the teacher instead of in front of the whole English class- Definitely an accommodation, but still WAY outside of her comfort zone and still a growth opportunity.)
- What you just described is actually your anxiety, not your child’s. Parents create a child’s reality. If a parent is visibly upset/worried/scared about something in front of the child, chances are, the child is going to demonstrate the same reaction. This is especially evident in social dynamics: If a parent was picked-on/excluded/hurt as a child, I often see that parent read-into their child’s social dynamics, making assumptions and sometimes dramatizing dynamics that don’t exist. Donna, you say Maddy cried all night because she has to spend the weekend with your mother-in-law? Donna, Maddy told me excitedly how Gramma gives her non-stop pony rides and popsicles, but I do know that YOU don’t like Shirley one bit. Are you sure Maddy wasn’t crying because she has overheard how MOM feels about Gramma, and that brought up a fearful and confused response in her?
So, parents of anxious children, I leave you now with those [hopefully] thought-provoking considerations (and also with a bizarre glimpse into the made-up characters of “Donna” and “Maddy”)…..
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