8 Strategies to Help an Anxious Child

Teach your child the skills they need to manage their anxiety

It's normal for children to feel afraid sometimes. It can even 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 fear. Fear is meant to keep them safe.

But sometimes, children can be scared of objects or situations that don't actually pose a threat—for example, a fear of public speaking or monsters lurking under their beds. This anxiety can prevent them from doing things they'd like to do (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. Below are eight strategies that can help an anxious child learn to deal with their uncomfortable feelings.

Validate Their 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.

Instead, validate their 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 they 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 okay to be scared and you can choose to be brave,” rather than, “You shouldn’t feel anxious.”

Distinguish Between Real Threats and False Alarms

Talk to your child about how anxiety is meant to keep them safe. For instance, if they were being chased by a lion, their brain would signal to their body that they're in danger. They would notice changes in their body like sweaty palms and an increased heart rate. They would get an immediate rush of energy as they prepare to bolt from the lion (a real threat).

Then tell them there are also times when their brain triggers a false alarm. These false alarms can cause them to feel intense fear over situations that are far from life-or-death. False alarms can include situations like trying out for the basketball team, speaking in front of a lot of people, or preparing for a big test.

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.

Explain that if it’s a real threat, they should listen to those alarm bells and take action to keep themselves safe. But if it’s a false alarm, it’s a good idea to face their fears.

Tackle Negative Thoughts

Like adults, your child is prone to negative thinking. This negative thinking can cause anxiety and erode their self-esteem.

Below are some skills you can teach them to identify their negative thoughts, question them, and change them into positive, realistic ones using positive self-talk.

  • Catch it. In order to tackle a negative thought, they first have to be able to spot it. Help them create a short list of negative thoughts they have often.
  • Challenge it. Encourage your child to become like a detective who gathers clues to assess the evidence behind their anxious thoughts. For example, if they frequently tell themselves, "I'm stupid," have them ask themselves, "Is it true? Am I stupid? Have there been times when I've shown that I'm smart?" This will teach them to not just accept every negative thought that comes into their head.
  • Change it. Once they're able to recognize and challenge their negative self-talk, the final step is to replace it with a positive one. Don't rush to say, "Oh honey, you're not stupid." Not only will they not believe you, but they won't learn how to change their negative thinking. Instead, ask, “What would you say to a friend who thought they were stupid?” When they offer a kind response, encourage them to tell themselves the same thing.

While it’s important to reassure an anxious child, it’s even more important to teach them how to treat themselves with kindness and compassion using healthier self-talk. Then, when you're not there right by their side to offer reassuring words, they can reassure themselves.

Teach Deep Breathing

Studies show that slow, deep breathing can help curb symptoms of both depression and anxiety. 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 with some simple breathing exercises.

One quick and easy way to help them get their breathing under control is to "smell the pizza." Here's how to do it:

  • Imagine a slice of pizza. You can also replace "pizza" with any other hot food, such as a cookie or soup.
  • Smell the pizza. Take a deep breath through your nose to inhale the delicious scent.
  • Cool the pizza. Pretend you're cooling the pizza by blowing out of your mouth slowly.

An alternative exercise is to teach them the "bubble blowing" technique. Tell them to pretend like they're blowing bubbles with a wand. Remind them of how softly they need to blow to get a nice big bubble. This will help them remember to slowly exhale.

Do these exercises 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.

Try The Stepladder Approach

Anxious children will often go to extreme lengths to avoid their fears. Unfortunately, avoidance only increases their anxiety. Although it may feel scary, facing fears will help resolve anxiety in the long run.

If your child is afraid of something specific, like sleeping alone in the dark or meeting new people, help them face their fears one small step at a time using the stepladder approach. The goal of this approach is 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.

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

Work with your child to come up with a list of the steps they can take to face their fears and meet their overall goal. Here’s an example of how you might help a child face their fear of sleeping alone if they've been sleeping in your bed:

  1. Have your child sleep on a mattress on the floor, next to your bed.
  2. Have your child sleep on a mattress on the floor, but move it closer to the door, away from your bed.
  3. Have your child sleep on a mattress on the floor in your room, with an agreement that you will put them in their own bed when they fall asleep.
  4. Have your child fall asleep in their own bedroom, with you in the room.
  5. Have your child fall asleep in their own bedroom with the agreement that you will check on them every couple of minutes until they fall asleep on their own.
  6. Have your child fall asleep in their own bedroom, with the light on.
  7. Have your child fall asleep in their own bedroom with just a nightlight on.

If your child meets a specific milestone, you might give them another privilege or a special reward. You can also use natural consequences to help motivate your child. For example, if they are 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.

Depending on what your child’s fear is, you may have a 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.

Help Them 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.

One effective 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 Style

Some parenting styles can actually make your child's anxiety worse, so it’s important to take a look at your parenting style and your interactions with your child. Of the four parenting styles identified by psychologist Diana Baumrind, both authoritarian and permissive parenting are linked with higher rates of depression and anxiety among children.

Expecting perfection and controlling your child's every move is a surefire way to trigger anxiety—in yourself and in your child. It can cause your child to feel constantly pressured to succeed, which can leave them paralyzed with fear and feelings of self-doubt.

However, the boundary-free parenting approach is hardly the answer. Permissive parenting leaves so much to the child's own choice that it can produce anxiety, as well.

Parents who allow their child to deal with life's day-to-day troubles themselves help them develop more resiliency and healthy coping strategies.

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 (which can include generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobia, and specific phobia) in children are common. Over 4 million children in the U.S. (approximately 7%) age 3-17 years experience issues with anxiety each year.

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. The pediatrician may refer your child to a mental health professional for treatment.

Each type of anxiety has its own set of symptoms and therefore its own treatment. Usually, treatment for anxiety involves talk therapy, but it can also include medication. 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.

A Word From Verywell

Although helping your child with their anxiety can feel overwhelming and draining for many parents, the good news is that they can overcome it. Following these strategies while offering connection and support can go a long way in empowering your child. They will receive the message that their parent will listen to their struggles and offer validation, resources, and support.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.