Parents of anxious children often wonder what they can do to help their kids manage anxiety. Thankfully, there are effective ways to address anxiety in children. In this article, I will first go over some of the potential causes of anxiety in children. Then, I will explain tips for parenting anxious children, such as providing encouragement, modeling healthy ways of handling anxiety, and seeking professional help.
Why Is My Child Anxious?
Anxious thoughts often stem from uncertainty or fear of negative outcomes. While there are risk factors, the truth is that anyone can experience anxiety. Some face feelings of anxiety here and there, whereas others live with or develop a full-blown anxiety disorder. In 2016-2019, 9.4% of children between ages three and 17 were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In recent years, the percentage has increased even further.
Things that may increase the risk of anxiety include:
- Stressful or negative events and environments. This is likely why anxiety disorders and other mental health problems increased following the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Family history. If someone has one or more close blood relatives with an anxiety disorder, it's more likely that they will, too.
- Other disorders. Anxiety in children with ADHD, ASD, and other conditions is significantly more prevelant.
When you notice that your child is experiencing anxious thoughts, it can be tough to know what to do next. Regardless of the cause, the good news is that there are ways to help.
Tips for Parenting Anxious Children
Parents are generally their child's first and biggest supporters. As a parent of an anxious child, what can you do to help, and what should you avoid? Here are some tips for parenting anxious children.
Use positive reinforcement and encourage your child. First, if they are currently anxious, you may help them get to a calmer place by using the healthy ways to handle anxiety mentioned below, such as stepping aside to take a break and breathe. Then, let them know that you believe in them and are here to be supportive. If you are able to think back to a time when they achieved something they were afraid of before (“you were afraid to go to preschool, but you did it!”) or pinpoint a specific trait (e.g., “you’re friendly/hardworking/kind”) that will help them in the particular scenario, it may be beneficial. It doesn't mean that you should blow off or dismiss their fear. In fact, it's important to talk about feelings in a shame-free way and let them know that there's nothing wrong with them feeling anxious, nor does it mean that they can't do it, which we will get to. Instead, it is about offering both understanding and encouragement. Read more about handling your child's separation anxiety.
Model Healthy Ways of Handling Anxiety
One of the best gifts you can give an anxious child is healthy coping tools. Without healthy coping tools, we don't know what to do with our thoughts and emotions. This can lead to both continued distress and unhealthy ways of coping, which you ideally want to avoid.
Healthy ways of handling anxiety to teach a child include but aren't limited to:
- Deep breathing. Breathing exercises soothe the nervous system and promote feelings of calm. Teaching a child deep breathing early on for anxiety is a great way to help them self-manage feelings of anxiety.
- Acknowledging and reframing thoughts. Teach a child to acknowledge "I am anxious." Then, discuss realistic ways to reframe anxious thoughts (e.g., "I can't prove that that'll happen.”)
- Taking a break. Sometimes, excusing oneself and taking a break when overwhelmed, overstimulated, or anxious is advantageous.
It can also help to make a list of soothing or self-care activities they can use when they feel anxious together. That way, your child can turn to the list when they need it.
Talk to Them About Their Thoughts
In the home, parents work on things like reading and writing skills with their kids. Emotional identification, expression, and regulation are all crucial life skills, too. When your child is anxious, talk to them about their thoughts in a calm, gentle, patient fashion.
When anxiety shows up, you may say something like, "it sounds like you feel anxious. Do you notice anything else happening? Does your tummy feel funny, or maybe your head? Can you tell me what you're thinking?"
This will help them identify anxiety in the future so that they can use the aforementioned coping or regulation skills, such as deep breathing. Tools like a feelings wheel may be helpful for some children who have trouble identifying emotions.
If your child can express what makes them feel anxious (e.g., "what if the other kids don't like me?"), it's a great time to use thought to reframe and rational mind. Be careful not to give absolutes about what will or won't happen, especially if it could result in a false promise and/or if the real-life outcome is out of their or your control. For example, as tempting as it is, don't say, "they'll like you!" Instead, you might say, "we can't control whether or not people like us, but the right people will like you."
Don't Reinforce the Anxiety
It's tempting to let your child avoid what makes them anxious. After all, you don't want to see them in distress. However, letting them skip out on what makes them anxious often only reinforces anxiety. Instead of allowing for avoidance, help your child engage in the task or event, and promote feelings of calm.
This might mean that you:
- Provide thorough details about what's going to happen (e.g., where you'll drop them off at school, when you'll be back, what school will be like, etc.).
- Break overwhelming or anxiety-inducing tasks into smaller steps. For example, if they're afraid of swimming, you may let them dip their toes into the water at the pool vs. forcing them to get in and swim first. Next time, walk into the pool with them until the water is up to their knees. Move in steps until you reach the ultimate goal.
- Engage in the event or task with them first. This can be a building block for them to do it on their own in the future. Set a realistic expectation ("I will walk in with you this time; next time, you can walk in alone.”)
Although it may be difficult at first, the exposure will make anxiety-inducing tasks easier in time.
Seek Professional Help When Needed
In addition to at-home support from parents, there are times when professional help is necessary. If feelings and thoughts of anxiety are continuous (e.g., they don't seem to go away despite at-home support), worsen, or affect your child's functioning at school, home, or in social situations, it's time to reach out. The initial step is often to make an appointment with your child's doctor or another healthcare provider who can screen for anxiety.
Therapy is the first recommended treatment for anxiety in kids and teens. A child therapist can help youth understand their thoughts, work through anxious thoughts, and find healthy coping skills that work. To find a therapist for your child, ask their doctor for a referral, search online for providers in your area, or call your health insurance company. Read our resource on how much a child therapist costs.
A diagnosis isn't required for therapy, and you don't need to have a mental health condition to benefit from it. In addition to anxiety, a therapist can assist kids with self-esteem, stress, friendship, school-related issues, varying levels of emotional dysregulation, and more. All of us have mental health to care for, including children, so don’t hesitate to make a move and reach out.
Your family isn’t alone if your child experiences anxiety. There are many potential contributing factors that can lead to anxiety, and regardless of the cause, it is possible to manage anxiety symptoms. You can read some science-based parenting books to help you cope with raising an anxious child. As a parent, you play a special role in giving your child support, understanding, and modeling healthy behavior. If anxiety symptoms persist, speak with a medical or mental health professional.