Being a parent isn’t easy on the best of days and parenting a child who is anxious can be an even more complex and challenging journey. As parents, our natural instinct is to protect and comfort our children when they are in distress; we want to help them. Anxiety is a normal and natural emotion that we all experience from time to time, but it becomes a concern when it begins to interfere with your child’s daily activities and interactions, and when the feelings and symptoms of anxiety hinder your child’s ability to cope with and fulfill social, academic, physical, and emotional expectations. A great way to work towards supporting an anxious child is to learn about the meanings and causes behind certain behaviours because a child’s anxiety can present itself in unexpected ways.
Here are some examples of unexpected ways that a child’s anxiety can present itself:
- Big Feelings: Kids who are anxious may feel agitated, angry, or unhappy and may not even know why they feel this way. Anxiety impacts our brains ability to properly perceive dangers or threats and, as a result, our fight, flight and freeze response can be triggered without an obvious reason presenting itself as anger or tantrums. Some kids experience “chandeliering”. This is when a child that appears calm one minute “explodes” the next minute due to a seemingly small trigger. Anxious kids may also cry often or at the drop of a hat and sometimes even without an explanation. Kids who are anxious may also appear very negative. They may experience negative thoughts more often than others and may have a harder time seeing the positive sides of different situations.
- Sleep: Kids who are anxious often have trouble falling and staying asleep. You may notice your child seeking extra attention at bed time, asking to sleep with you, or just fighting the idea of bed time all together.
- Need for Control: Anxious kids often feel the need to control people and events. They have an intolerance for uncertainty and may over plan for events or require a lot of information about upcoming events. They may even try to avoid certain events. Kids who are anxious may appear defiant but in reality they are looking for ways to control situations in which they feel helpless or out of control and are unable to communicate or understand what they are really feeling.
- Focus: Kids who are anxious may struggle with their ability to remain focused or concentrate on a particular task. Their mind may wonder as they think about worries they are having. Kids who are anxious may also have unrealistic expectations of themselves and may put far too much pressure on themselves to reach certain goals.
- Physical: Kids who are anxious may experience pains in their tummies or upset tummies, they may experience headaches,or other physical pains caused by tense muscles.
Now that we are better able to identify when our child is feeling anxious, what can we do about it?
- Hugs: We don’t always know the right thing to say and there might not even be a right thing to say. Hugging and holding your child is a great way to comfort him or her and it shows your child that he or she is loved, supported, and safe.
- Visualize: Ask your child to think about a time and a place when he or she felt happy and calm. Have your child close their eyes and visualize how he or she felt and looked during this time. Use the same situation or place each time so it becomes more automatic as they practice.
- Grounding: A popular grounding activity involves having your child identify 5 things they see, 4 things they hear, 3 things they can feel, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste.
- Draw It: Have your child draw what he or she is feeling or what your child is anxious about. Use this as a guide to open communication and discuss their worries.
- Destroy the Worry: Have your child write down or draw their worries on a piece of paper then have him or her crumple it up and rip it apart. Have your child imagine that they are destroying their worry.
- Regulate Breathing: Have your child do 20 jumping jacks or have your child use slow deep breaths to blow bubbles. They can also use a straw to blow a ball of paper across the room. Anxiety can cause shallow breathing. These activities encourage deep regular breaths and can help to reduce anxious feelings.
- Motivate: Helping your child to remember past successes is a great way to remind him/her of how strong and capable he or she is of overcoming difficult situations.
- Problem Solve: Help your child to cope with possible solutions to their worries or fear. Make a plan with him/her for when they encounter difficult situations.
Here are a few extra tips for supporting your child:
- Give your child the opportunity to talk about the things they are feeling anxious about or about how their anxiety is making him/her feel. Praise your child for sharing their feelings, comfort and support him or her.
- Gently encourage your child to do the things they are anxious about rather than avoid them, remind your child of the strength it takes them to do these things and how proud you are of him/her for trying even if they do not succeed how you had planned it.
- Be a role model. Share your own experiences with anxiety and allow your child to observe your own healthy coping mechanisms
- Teach your child about anxiety; about what is happening with their body and their mind, and different strategies to manage it.
Being a parent isn’t always easy, in fact, I think it is rarely easy. On top of all the day to day pressures we face, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and to always have the answer when it comes to our kids. The reality of it is, we won’t always know the right answer and sometimes there isn’t even a right answer. All we can do is try our best for our kids and to trust ourselves and our abilities. Know that no matter what, the love we have and show to our kids is the most powerful and healing thing of all…and remember, even if we might not always feel like amazing parents, in their eyes, we are super heroes.
Amy Shaw, MSW, RSW
B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy