By Gillean Wade, MS, LMFT
As the lazy days of summer come to a close and a new school year approaches, some children will return to the classroom with a variety of worries and fears. All children experience some level of worry, and the rates of anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Research shows that anxiety disorders affect one in eight children, and that children left untreated are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and to engage in substance abuse.
Before you start feeling anxious yourself, here’s the good news! Anxiety disorders are very treatable, and you as a parent can play a powerful role in helping your child cope with fear and worry. Here are five healthy ways to respond to and empower children to handle their anxiety.
1. Resist the urge to convince children that they shouldn’t be worried. When we hear something like, “I’m afraid to be in my room by myself,” many of us want to say, “That’s silly, your room is perfectly safe. You have nothing to be afraid of.” The reality is that no matter how silly or insignificant the worry seems to us as adults, you can’t convince someone that their anxiety is not valid. Instead, I recommend you get down on your child’s level and take several deep breaths together, let them know that you hear what they are saying about feeling anxious, and praise them for sharing their feelings: “I hear that you are feeling scared about being in your room by yourself. I get it. What do you think we can do to make you feel safe?”
2. Normalize a child’s worry. It’s helpful for kids to know that everyone struggles with worry sometimes, and that it’s not realistic to never feel anxious about anything. Sometimes, we as parents — especially if we deal with our own anxiety — want to protect our kids from ever worrying. We seek to minimize anything that would cause them to feel distress. Instead, we should teach them that anxiety and worry are normal parts of being human and then help them face the things they’re worried about.
In fact, anxiety can actually be helpful at times. Feeling worried when a child sees a classmate bully one of their friends should prompt them that this behavior is not okay and to go get help. It’s also normal to feel some anxiety before a test — it’s the body’s way of recognizing that the upcoming activity is important and can help the brain to focus and take the test seriously.
3. Now help the child externalize the worry: Give the worry a name, and talk back to it! Externalizing simply means to express on the outside. I loved Pixar’s movie “Inside Out” and often use the movie to explain to my younger clients how anxiety works. In the movie, the character “Fear” lives in Riley’s brain and alerts her to things that might cause her danger. There are times, however, when Fear gets too much control. When that happens, we should recognize it has happened and tell Fear to calm down. This can empower kids to see they can have some control over thoughts and feelings.
4. Teach your children to challenge their thoughts. This is a great follow-up to the idea of externalizing anxiety, and is a great skill for kids to develop. I recently worked with a young boy who had seen a scary show, and was not able to sleep in his room because he feared a robber would break into his house. I worked with his parents to help him express his thought, and then examine that thought. For instance, while there are bad people in the world, there are also wise things a family can do to stay safe: lock the doors, ask who’s there before answering, etc. The child can be confident that his neighborhood and home are very safe and that his parents and brother sleep nearby.
5. Always seek to build emotional intelligence in our kids. We often see a tantrum as simply defiance or a child’s unwillingness to engage in a task as disobedience. But if parents can recognize that beneath these behaviors there exists a variety of feelings, such as fear or anxiety, we can help our children learn to express those feelings in a healthy and appropriate way. It’s also important for adults to model this by appropriately expressing our own feelings.
Watching your child struggle with anxiety can be so painful to observe as a parent, but take heart! Providing a safe place for your child to express fears, and being able to empower them to work through their anxieties is a wonderful gift you can give your child.
Gillean Wade, MS, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices at A&M Christian Counseling Center in Bryan. In addition to being a therapist, she is also a wife and mother to three children, all of whom have very big feelings.