12 Tips For Parenting Your Child With Anxiety
Any parent of an anxious child knows how hard it can be parenting your child with anxiety. We don’t expect our child to be terrified to be in a car alone, or throw a tantrum when the seams of their socks aren’t quite right. We often don’t anticipate where the scary landmines of life can be, and this can make parenting tricky business and it isn’t hard to be caught off guard.
From a neurological perspective, kids need adults to help them understand and regulate their powerful and confusing emotions, and especially when it comes to anxiety. Because the part of the brain that handles thinking and judgement isn’t fully formed until much later in development (between 18 and 24 yo), kids are more vulnerable to the impact and rely on adult help to regulate them. Neurologically, a child comes into the world with a fully functioning amygdala and a full capacity to feel fear, but doesn’t have the brain capacity to know to understand that fear or what to do with it. This is where adults come in – kids borrow our coping skills and learn from the adults around them as they develop their own.
If you have an anxious child, you are on your toes when it comes to parenting. Keeping these strategies in mind can help you parent your anxious child, and shape their lifelong coping skills.
- Nuture shapes Nature: According to the latest science of epigenetics, the debate between nature and nature is a myth: both are important, but nurture wins out since our brains continually shape themselves to their environment, especially in childhood when brain development is so profound. Parents then have powerful influence over how their children experiences anxiety, so don’t be shy (pun intended) in helping them develop the positive coping skills they need.
- Control and choice: There is nothing more frightening than being out of control, and a sense of powerlessness can drive up anxiety, both in your child, and in you. Take control by pointing out your child’s choices and offering her control wherever you can (ie. You can wear this outfit or that one, choose which homework subject to start, or which friends to talk to at school). Identifying her choices helps boost her sense of control.
- Normalize anxiety: Let you child know that anxiety is a normal feeling we all have that means we care. Whether it’s about how something feels in their mouth, on their skin, or in their heart, anxiety is simply discomfort that signals something we care about it on the line. Normalizing it as a motivator to problem solve can help your child not be afraid of their anxiety, which can protect them against escalated anxiety.
- Talk about feelings: Naming feelings activates the same part of the brain that helps regulate them; with a developing brain, you just can’t do this too much. Talk about feelings, including your own, and engage your child in practicing for himself whenever you can. Broadening his feeling vocabulary and experience in identifying them will build his coping capacity long term.
- Offer “reappraisal:” For acutely stressful events, try helping your child reappraise their anxiety as excitement – excitement to share their skills or what they know. The latest science suggests our emotions are the product of the signal we feel and the meaning we assign to those experiences. By changing the meaning, we can change our experience.
- Anxiety can be an advantage: Understanding the upsides of anxiety can help your child embrace their sensitivity. Studies show that anxious people are great problem solvers, tend to have higher intelligence, and are sensitive to all sorts of experiences and situations that non-anxious people can miss. One 10 year old even calls anxiety her ‘superpower’ in that it helps her tune into subtleties that help her be a great friend.
- Hug your child: As often as possible, show her she is not alone, and she is loved. As good for you as it is for your child, a simple hug stimulates needed oxytocin in the brain that helps boost trust and regulate the stress response.
- Sleep: Research keeps coming out about the benefits of sleep, especially with regard to emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, and physical health. Inadequate sleep increases depression risk, substance abuse, and anxiety. Kids’ sleep needs vary by age, and facilitating your anxious child’s rest can help them be at their best.
- Exercise: Like sleep, exercise can be a robust coping strategy for anxiety according to science. Getting kids moving is a great way to burn off excess energy from anxiety, and give them the cognitive boost they need to manage their emotions.
- Belly breathing: A “lullaby” for our threat system, deep, slow belly breathing is the fastest way to calm our nervous system, and kids can learn the technique to have it with them anywhere they might need it. The key is to inhale slowly and deeply (protruding the belly on the inhale to stimulate the vagal nerve), hold it briefly, and then exhale as slowly as the inhale. No more than 6 breaths a minute signals the body it’s safe to relax.
- Aim to be a “non-anxious” presence: Family therapist Edwin Friedman coined this term to describe how to stay connected to an anxious person while at the same time helping to diffuse their anxiety. As social beings, we are acutely sensitive to the experiences of others and also capable of impacting those experiences, especially when it comes to our sensitive children. Like an electrical circuit that must be grounded to be operational, a calming engaged presence can help your anxious child better regulate themselves.
- Mind your own anxiety: Don’t overlook how stressful it is to parent an anxious child. It may not always be possible to be a non-anxious presence – after all, you care a LOT too. Know your limits and heavy up on self care to bolster your own coping. Get clear on what you might be bringing to the situation, and regain control of your intent if you start to feel off balance. Anticipate challenges, think through strategies, and adopt an attitude of gentleness and compassion.
There is no perfect method when it comes to parenting your child with anxiety, and not all of these tips will apply to every anxious child. Follow your instincts, and when in doubt show your child unconditional, physical love. Threading throughout each of these strategies is care and compassion.
Anxiety can’t exist without caring, and thus can be regulated through its expression.
Be patient with your child, and yourself, as you navigate this together. This lets them know they are loved, and can count on you, as they learn to count on themselves.
Looking for more help in parenting or managing the anxiety of modern life? Check out my blog and connect with me on social media. For further resources in naming feelings, download my free ebook that includes lists of over 2000 feeling words, categorized by genre and severity.