A little anxiety can be a motivation starter. That little bit of oomph that we all need to push a little harder, study a little longer, or in my case, getting that last load of laundry done!
However, pathological anxiety is much more pervasive and normally occurs at heightened levels with everyday activities such as going to school, ordering at a restaurant or even going to bed. According to the NIMH (National Institute Of Mental Health), 31.9% of teens will experience clinical levels of anxiety during their lifetime and 10-20% of elementary school-aged children report that they experience symptoms.
An even larger number of children experience stress that does not qualify as an anxiety disorder. So, what’s a parent to do? Here are 5 tips for managing your child’s anxiety.
5 Tips For Managing Your Child’s Anxiety:
1) Take A Breath-Keep Your Cool
Pause for a moment and gauge your own reaction to your child’s stressor. Anxiety tends to feed off of anxiety. If your emotions are elevated, chances are your child’s emotions will feel more elevated as well. The good news is the opposite is also true. Take a few deep breaths, which is shown to reduce anxiety in and of itself, slow down your talking and adapt a calm and soothing tone with your child.
2) Allow Them To Worry
Telling your child not to worry won’t keep them from doing so. If they could simply shove their feelings away, they would. Allowing your child to worry openly, in limited doses, can be helpful. Create a daily ritual called “Worry Time” that lasts 10 to 15 minutes. During this ritual encourage your children to release their worries in pictures, words or writing. They can even decorate a box or container to keep their worries in. During worry time there are no rules on what constitutes a valid worry — anything goes. When the time is up, close the box and say goodbye to the worries for the day. When worries come up during the day (say, right before school, when you’re in a time crunch), you can remind your child that you will talk about the worry at “Worry Time.” Over time, you may notice that your child doesn’t have enough “worries” to fill 10-15 minutes. Now you can use this extra time to just talk and connect!
3) Empathize by “mirroring”
Telling someone that their worry is unnecessary can be invalidating. Your child has different life experiences. Do you remember when discovering that your favorite shirt was dirty or a funny look from a classmate constituted the “worst day ever”? A technique I often use both with clients, as well as with my sons, is called “mirroring” or reflective listening. In mirroring, you pretty much repeat what you heard, without adding a judgment. It is a way to process together what they are feeling. This helps your child feel heard. You will be in a better position to move towards a solution.
4) Have a Plan
Once you and your child have identified the source of anxiety, come up with a plan. Too rushed in the morning? How about changing the morning routine? Perhaps you can plan to go to bed and wake up earlier. Try setting out clothes the night before or packing the backpack before bed. Consider a morning music playlist that is calming or invigorating. The more input you invite from your child about forming a plan, the better things will likely go as it gives them a sense of control (something that is often lacking when anxiety rears its ugly head).
5) Recognize and Praise Accomplishments
It is important to point out if the new solution is working. This is great modeling to help your child implement the above steps when future stressors impact their anxiety levels. It also creates a sense of efficacy and a solution-focused mindset.
Sometimes outside help is needed to address anxiety and develop effective coping strategies for managing stress or ruminative thinking. If you think that your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder, or experiencing an unusually high level of stress, seek the help of a therapist for individual or group counseling.