It is natural and healthy to experience some anxiousness in our lives. It’s an evolutionary safety survival mechanism, like a smoke detector. You want the warning if there is danger to be avoided.
But for about 20 per cent of children, that smoke detector is set just a little too sensitively. It sounds alarm bells when there is no real impending danger. That can lead to a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.
If you have an anxious child, you are not alone. Whether it’s just the anxiousness of feeding a goat at the petting zoo, or social anxiety that turns a family gathering into a panic attack, you as a parent are a key player in helping your child cope with their anxiety.
I say cope because it’s important to understand that you don’t want to make their anxiety go away. It’s a warning system. Don’t disable the smoke detector! Instead, we want to teach children how to manage and cope with their anxiety. That requires a parent’s help.
Here are 8 steps to calming an anxious child:
1) Stay calm yourself
Your calmness is infectious. When you are calm, the child has more evidence that things are safe. Your reassuring tone and body posture is calming all on its own.
2) Name what they are experiencing
Crouch down to their level and quietly say, “It looks like you are feeling anxious in your body or perhaps you are having worrying thoughts. Where do you feel it? Does your tummy have butterflies or do your fingers tingle? Is your head thinking ‘oh no, what if, what if?’ What are your worried thoughts saying to you?”
3) Validate their feelings
Regardless of what they answer, or if they say nothing at all, remember that feelings are facts. Their feelings are real. Don’t say, “There is nothing to be afraid of.” Instead re-assure your child that you understand what they are going through: “Sounds like you are very anxious and afraid right now. That is okay. Lots of people feel frightened at moments like this.”
4) Share a story of your own
If you remember a time you had feelings of anxiety that were similar, share a little story about it. Children feel more normalized knowing you experienced the same thing.
5) Assure them you will help them cope
Let your child know they are not facing this challenge alone. Let them know that together you are stronger, and together you can work to help them feel comfortable again. You are a team.
Close your eyes and take deep cleansing belly breaths together. The breaths should be deep enough that you make a little noise when exhaling.
7) Prompt them to stand up to bullying thoughts
Explain to your child that that little voice in their head is like a bully who is trying to ruin their fun. Empower them to stand up to the bully. Explain that they can take the bully’s power away by not obeying him and thinking good thoughts instead. Prompt your child to think of something pleasant and distracting, even if it’s only counting by two’s to 10 or naming 10 kinds of fruits or vegetables.
8) Remind them of past success
It can help a child build bravery when we remind them of their past accomplishments to stand up to their anxiety. If they were afraid to go to Dylan’s birthday party, but had a great time after only five minutes, then perhaps they could take the same approach going into this new friend’s birthday party.
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