Changing Your Relationship with Anxiety Part 4: Parenting an Anxious Child
All children and teens experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension or fear at certain moments in their life. Anxiety can be experienced in unfamiliar situations or even initiate action in potentially dangerous situations. Anxiety is defined as the overestimation of a threat and the underestimation of coping ability.
Anxiety can become problematic when it interferes with things children/adolescents should reasonably be able to do or when it disturbs normal daily function. The example I use for this is, if I am uncomfortable with heights, I do not need to ride a roller coaster to live a full life. But, if I am uncomfortable in social situations, I need to be able to be in public for school, work, etc.
Anxiety can be defined as the overestimation of a threat and the underestimation of coping ability.
When your child experiences anxiety, it is important to be able to talk to them about what they are experiencing. One way to do this for younger children is to use the fire alarm analogy. Has your smoke alarm ever gone off when there wasn’t a fire? Maybe you just burned some toast but it sounds like the whole house is on fire? Your body has an alarm system and it can also go off when you are not in danger.
Children with anxiety usually believe that their level of fear is directly correlated to their actual level of danger. They perceive that the threat level is high when in reality it is not. For example, a teen may have an anxiety level of 10 out of 10 but they are just safely sitting in math class. Their perceived level of danger is much higher than any actual danger.
I also believe it can be helpful give them some understanding of how their brain creates anxiety. I teach clients that their Amygdala is an almond shaped part of the brain that is responsible for switching on when it thinks you are in danger (fight/flight). If your amygdala thinks you are in trouble it will flood your body with what it needs in that moment (adrenaline, oxygen, etc.). Your amygdala is a doer not a thinker. So when you are in math class and your amygdala switches on, you will have the physical experience of being in actual danger.
Below are some common red flags that your child might be showing signs of anxiety:
Easily distressed in low stress situations
Repetitive questions for reassurance (Am I ok? Will it be ok?) and is not calmed by logical answers
Psychosomatic complaints- Headache, stomach ache
Difficulty getting to or staying at school
Persistent worry about future events
Difficulty sleeping- Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Extreme concern about offending or upsetting others- excessive apologizing
Avoidance of stressful situations
Disruptions of normal daily activity
Unrealistic or catastrophic thinking (worse case scenario)
As parents we tend to do what we can to reassure our children when they are afraid and to help them avoid feeling uncomfortable. Excessive reassurance or helping children avoid things that make them anxious can actually make anxiety worse. Here some things to keep in mind when parenting a child through anxiety….
1) The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety but to help the child manage it.
Parents don’t need to eliminate stressors or triggers. They need to help their child tolerate uncomfortable feelings and help them learn tools to function through it.
2) Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious.
Anxiety and avoidance can become a vicious cycle. Helping your child avoid things they are afraid of only reinforces that there is something to fear. It also removes the opportunity to manage the fear with healthy coping skills.
3) Express positive but realistic expectations.
It is not helpful to try to convince your child that nothing bad will ever happen or that things will always go the way they want. Children need to become more comfortable with uncertainty. Living with uncertainty means that I do not need a guarantee of a good outcome. I just need to know that I have resources and skills no matter what happens.
4) Encourage your child to tolerate anxiety.
Avoiding fearful situations perpetuates anxiety. Encourage your child to engage with their fears and watch the fear decrease over time.
5) Be a good role model for managing anxiety.
Kids look to use for cues on how to handle certain situations. You don’t need to pretend you don’t feel anxiety. Show them healthy ways that you engage with anxiety.