9 Strategies to Help an Anxious Child

Teach your child the skills they need to manage their anxiety

Whether your child worries about monsters lurking under the bed or anxious about giving a presentation at school, all kids experience anxiety sometimes.

Anxiety can be a good thing. After all, your child wouldn’t think twice about running into oncoming traffic or jumping off a cliff if they didn’t have a little anxiety. Anxiety is meant to keep your child safe.

But, there’s a good chance that they'll experience some excessive anxiety at one time or another. Perhaps they'll worry about unrealistic things, or maybe anxiety will talk them out of doing things that would be good for them (like trying out for the soccer team).

The way you respond to your child’s anxiety will make a big difference in how they learn to cope with anxious feelings.

Here are nine strategies that can help an anxious child learn to deal with his uncomfortable feelings.


Validate Your Child’s Feelings

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When your child says they're worried about something, it can be tempting to say things like, “Oh it’s not a big deal,” or “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.” Those types of responses send a message that your child’s feelings are wrong.

Validate your child’s feelings by saying things like, “It sounds like you’re feeling really nervous right now,” or “I’d be a little anxious too if I had to get up in front a big crowd.”

Then, send a message that says you’re confident that your child can succeed despite the nerves. Say something like, “It’s tough to do scary things like this but I am confident you can do it.”

Whatever words you choose, make sure you’re essentially saying, “It’s OK to be scared and you can choose to be brave,” rather than, “you shouldn’t feel anxious.”


Distinguish Between Real and False Alarms

Talk to your child about how anxiety is meant to keep them safe. If they were being chased by a lion, their brain would signal an alarm to their body that they were in danger. Their palms might get sweaty, their heart might beat faster, and they might get a rush of energy as they prepare to take action.

There are likely going to be times when their brain sends off a false alarm and alerts their body to danger, even when it’s not a life or death situation. Going to basketball tryouts, being in the spelling bee, and failing a test might evoke the same anxiety response as if they were fighting for their life.

Help your child begin to identify when they're experiencing a real alarm (a life or death situation) versus a false alarm (an event that may be uncomfortable but isn’t actually life-threatening).

Explain that if it’s a real alarm, they should listen to those alarm bells and take action to keep themselves safe (like refuse to accept a dangerous dare). But if it’s a false alarm, it’s a good idea to face their fears.

When they're anxious, ask, “Is your brain giving you a real alarm right now or a false alarm?” Then, help them decide what action to take.


Gather Evidence

When your child says things like, “I’m afraid I won’t have anyone to sit with at lunch,” or “I am afraid I’m going to get all the answers wrong on my math test,” work together to gather the evidence.

Explain that the thoughts aren’t always true—and that the anxiety might predict things that aren’t likely to actually happen.

Encourage your child to become like a detective who gathers clues to assess the evidence behind his anxious thoughts.

For example, if they say they're going to fail a math test, ask, “What’s the evidence this is true?” Then, list the evidence that supports the negative prediction, like they're struggling with fractions or failed a test before.

Then, gather evidence that might suggest the prediction isn’t true. For example, they passed the last test, got a fair amount of questions correct on homework, and studying hard to learn more.

Write down the evidence and then review it together. Help show your child that his anxious thoughts and catastrophic predictions aren’t destined to happen.

Teach your child to gather the evidence on their own so that they can do so when you’re not there to help them. Reviewing a written list of the evidence that supports and refutes thoughts can shift thinking and reduce anxiety.


Teach Your Child Healthy Self-Talk

While it’s important to reassure an anxious child, it’s even more important to teach them to reassure themselves. When they say, “I am going to mess up in my dance recital,” don’t rush to say, “You’re going to do great!”

Instead, ask, “What would you say to a friend who thought she was going to mess up in her dance recital?” Your child might respond by saying, “I’d tell her she is going to do a good job.”

When they offer a kind response, encourage them to tell themselves the same thing.

The goal is to teach them how to treat themselves with kindness and compassion with healthier self-talk. Then, when you're not there right by their side to offer reassuring words, they can reassure themselves.


Identify Strategies for Calming the Body

If your child experiences a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, like a racing heartbeat or tight muscles, teach them how to calm their body.

Slow, deep breaths can be a good way to calm the body, and a good way to teach kids to regulate their breathing is to tell them to “smell the pizza.”

Say, “Pretend you’re going to eat a piece of pizza. Take a deep breath through your nose and smell the pizza.” After your child takes a deep breath in through their nose, say, “Now, you have to blow on the pizza to cool it down.” This will help them slowly exhale.

An alternative exercise is to teach them to "blow bubble breaths." Tell them to pretend like they're blowing bubbles with a wand to help them remember to slowly exhale.

Do the exercise together a few times to help them calm their body. Talk about how they can remind themselves to do it on their own when they're feeling anxious as well.


Help Your Child Face Fears One Small Step at a Time

If your child is anxious about something specific, like scared of the dark or afraid to order their own food in a restaurant, help them face fears one small step at a time. Although it may feel scary, facing fears will help resolve anxiety in the long-term.

It’s important, however, to move slowly. If you try to force them to do something that is too scary, they may grow more fearful and your efforts will backfire.

Keep in mind that it’s important to work with your child to decide on what those baby steps toward facing their fears would look like. You might sit down and write out a list of the steps they can take to face their fears.

The goal should be for them to do something that is moderately scary—and to keep practicing it until it isn’t so scary anymore. Then, they can take the next step.

Here’s an example of how you might help a child face their fears of sleeping alone if they've been sleeping in your bed:

  1. Sleep on a mattress on the floor in Mom and Dad’s room (rather than in their bed).
  2. Fall asleep in Mom and Dad’s room and they will put me in my own bed after I’m asleep.
  3. Fall asleep in my own bed with Mom or Dad in the room.
  4. Mom or Dad will tuck me and check on me every couple of minutes while I fall asleep in my own room.
  5. Sleep in my own bed with the light on.
  6. Sleep in my own bed with just a night light on.

Depending on what your child’s fear is, you may have few steps or you may have a lot. But it’s important to get your child on board during this stage to ensure she’s invested in trying to create a change.

You might find it’s helpful to offer incentives. For example, if your child meets a specific milestone, you might give them another privilege or a special reward.

You also might use natural consequences to help motivate your child. For example, if your child is too shy to order their own ice cream, you might say that they need to do it if they want one. Of course, you should only use this if you know they're capable of doing it on their own.


Help Your Child Change the Channel

If your child is anxious about things they can’t control, such as being worried that it might rain tomorrow and cause a baseball game to be canceled, help them get their mind off the anxiety.

When your child is preoccupied with a specific worry, ask, “Is there anything you can do about that?” If the answer is yes, help them solve the problem.

For example, if they're worried about a science test, studying would be a good idea. Or, if they're worried about not making the basketball team, they could practice their skills.

But, if they're worried about things they can’t control, like the weather or someone else’s behavior, discuss the fact that the only thing they can control is how they respond. Talk about how they might make the best of bad weather or how they might respond if someone is mean to them.

Then, help them get their mind off the subject. Incessant worrying will keep them stuck in a state of anxiety, so help them change the channel to shift the mood.

The best way to change the channel is to encourage them to move their body and get involved in an activity. Working on a chore, running around outside, or playing a game are some simple ways to get their mind off any worries.


Be Aware of Your Parenting Strategies

Studies have found that parents who exhibit controlling behavior tend to amplify their child’s anxiety. So it’s important to take a look at your parenting style and your interactions with your child.

Trying to force your child to do things or insisting that everything be done your way will likely make things worse.

Be on the lookout for perfectionist tendencies, too. Expecting your child to be perfect can cause your child to feel a lot of pressure, which causes more anxiety.

If you struggle with anxiety, it’s important to get help. Your anxiety may rub off on your child and cause them to develop anxiety as well.


Seek Professional Help

If your child’s anxiety lasts more than two weeks, talk to a pediatrician. You should also talk to a pediatrician if your child’s anxiety is interfering with everyday functioning.

For example, if their attendance at school or their grades are affected by their anxiety or they're struggling to get involved in social activities because of their fears, they may need some professional support.

Anxiety disorders in children are common. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 children in the United States has an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are very treatable, but they often go unrecognized and undiagnosed. If you think your child may have an anxiety disorder, talk to the pediatrician.

Children may develop anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias.

The pediatrician may refer your child to a mental health professional. Treatment for anxiety usually involves talk therapy. A mental health professional can help your child learn skills to cope with his anxious feelings and build confidence to face some of his fears.

A therapist will likely want you involved in treatment so you can learn how to support your child at home. You may learn specific strategies to coach your child when they're feeling anxious or you may learn how to help them face some of their fears in a healthy way.

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Article Sources
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