Anxiety is tough to handle as an adult. It was substantially more so as a child. I distinctly remember the day it all started for me – I just very suddenly went from an incredibly confident little girl, to the girl who couldn’t seem to get herself together. I went from confidently standing on stage at dance recitals, to being unable to get up from my desk to give my fifth-grade speech. It was very out of character, and it was very scary.
Needless to say it progressed from there, rather rapidly. Eventually I would have trouble attending school. Every morning would be a battle, filled with so much fear, and so much shame on my part. My rock throughout the entire experience was my mother.
My hero since birth, this woman had the patience, and the fortitude, to get me through the lowest of my lows as a little girl. She held my hand, encouraged me, supported me, and gently pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have survived without her. I also, until recently when I myself became a mother, had no idea how she did it.
We immigrated from the USSR, a place where mental/psychological health wasn’t a thing. People weren’t diagnosed with things like Anxiety and Panic disorders. This meant that my parents were very literally fighting blind when I started to struggle from both. I had never even heard of the word anxiety (and I was in the 6th grade… so you’d think it would have been part of my vocabulary at this point in life), so aside from the fact that my parents had no idea what was happening, I didn’t even have the capability, or the vocabulary, to express or explain what was happening to me.
My mother, in true motherly fashion, did all the research, spoke to all the specialists, and found what worked best for us. Sometimes this literally involved her spending the entire school day outside my school, huddled in her car in the parking lot – but that’s an entirely different story.
In an attempt to help families who have children suffering from an anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, panic disorders, and/or depression, I’ve decided to write up a list of some of the techniques you could use to help your child cope.
Expression – Analyzing feelings
You can’t always be there to hold your child’s hand. This means that the best tool you can give them is self-sufficiency. Teach them how to express their feelings – the better they are at identifying what is making them anxious, the more likely they are to understand their own emotions. When you know what’s happening to you, you are infinitely less scared and overwhelmed. Once you can identify what the trigger is, you can work to address the emotions associated with it.
Phrases like “I’m worried about…”, “I’m anxious because…”, prompt your child to find the words to express their fears.
Plan – Analyze the situation
The next step after identifying what the trigger or the fear may be, is to rationalize. Working through scenarios that your child may be afraid of can help them see that what they fear isn’t really as scary as their anxiety makes it seem. Run through their worst-case scenario, and work to find a solution or action plan for it. If they feel psychologically prepared to deal with that which they fear, they are better equipped to handle the emotions of anxiety that are associated with this fear.
My fear was becoming physically ill and vomiting while at school – my mother and I worked through a simple action plan. For instance, you could work out an plan that involves having a change of clothing, notifying your child’s teachers that in the event that they feel ill they are permitted to go to the bathroom without having to raise their hand and draw attention to themselves, and notifying the office that your child may need to call home during the day so they will need access to a phone.
Don’t Do Avoidance
Do not simply avoid your child’s triggers. The more you avoid the scenarios they fear, the more you reinforce the anxiety that they associate with the trigger. Now I’m not saying throw your child into a swimming pool if he’s scared to learn to swim, but subtle exposure and encouragement, WITH YOUR SUPPORT, is a good way to expose them to their fears. By doing this you will be helping them to disassociate the trigger from feelings of anxiety. You will be building their confidence, therefore decreasing their worry.
If they know that they are fighting this fear with a support system (that’s you), then they are much more likely to succeed at facing that very fear.
You can’t just tell your kid that everything is going to be okay. You can’t simply brush the fears under the rug and tell them their fears aren’t real or realistic, because for them – their fears are very real, their anxiety is proof of that.
Their body and mind are both very literally reacting to that which they are scared of. Set realistic expectations, and be positive. Don’t tell them they have to try a new activity because they’ll have fun, because frankly they may not and saying they will, if they won’t, will just cause a rift in trust between you. Instead, reassure them that they will be proud of themselves for trying, for facing their fears. Work on rather reassuring them that you are confident in their ability to manage the situation and their fears.
This kind of encouragement will help them face their fears with confidence. The more they do this the less afraid they will be.
There is a distinct difference between understanding and acknowledging your child’s fears, versus encouraging or amplifying their fears. Tell your child that you understand their fear, talk them through the fear so that they themselves can understand them, but also encourage them to face these fears.
“I understand you’re afraid, and I am here with you and will help you work through these emotions.”
Don’t Fuel the Fear
Furthermore, try not to reinforce that fear with your body language or voice. We worry about our children, and seeing them struggle is scary. Try not to let these emotions that YOU are having reflect the way you encourage your child.
You may know that you are entering a situation that your child has previously been anxious about, don’t let this knowledge reflect the way speak to them. Don’t let your concern about how your child will handle the situation colour their emotions in that moment. Your confidence in your child will rub off on your child, so even if you yourself are not sure that your kid can handle the situation – don’t show them this.
Just keep in mind – if you have a small kid with anxiety, all the signs and symptoms may be there but they probably don’t know how to articulate what it is they need from you. They may not even be able to articulate whether what you are doing in an attempt to help them is working. Don’t be discouraged, this process may largely be a matter of trial and error for you – don’t give up, keep trying until you find what works for you and your family, and never be scared to seek and ask for help.