How To Help A Child With Anxiety: A Parent-Centered Approach To Managing Children’s Anxiety

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OK, so you’ve got a kid with anxiety. They might struggle to go to school or they’re shy or maybe they’re dealing with stomach aches or headaches or other physical signs of anxiety. Maybe they throw a fit when it’s time to go to bed or they cry and cling to you when it’s time to leave. And it breaks your heart. You can see them suffering and you’d do anything to help them feel better. You worry that anxiety will plague them for the rest of their lives. Maybe you’re afraid that you gave them your crappy anxiety genes or you made them anxious somehow. 

I really want to emphasize, it’s most likely not your fault that your child is anxious, there are a lot of factors that go into it, including personality and genetics. It’s not your fault, but there is something you can do about it. Anxiety is absolutely treatable. You can learn how to help a child with anxiety. 

And you probably want me to teach you skills for your child, but research shows that intervening with parents is more helpful than intervening with kids. There are literally hundreds of opportunities a week for you to show your kids how to manage anxiety. So in this video series, I’m going to teach you how to change your mindset around anxiety, then in the next 3 videos I’m going to teach you practical things you can DO to help your child with anxiety. 

So are you on board? Are you willing to change yourself and your framework in order to help your kid? Awesome! Let’s go. Here are 4 principles for helping your anxious kid.

1. It's More Effective To Help Parents Change Their Mindset Around Anxiety, Than To Only Do Therapy With A Kid

OK, principle #1. It’s more effective to change parents’ approach to anxiety, than to teach your kids skills or only send them to therapy. You have 168 hours per week to interact and influence your children. And kids absolutely look to their parents to know how to respond to situations. 

Have you ever seen it when a little toddler falls down? The first thing they do, before they cry, before they make a sound, is to look up and look for the face of their parent, and if their parent is like “Oh that is so funny!” The kid might laugh, and if the parent is like “Oh that looked awful! Are you hurt?” The kid realizes that this was a life threatening event and starts crying.

Children, and people in general scan the faces of people around them to know how to interpret events. To know whether they are safe and capable of overcoming the situations around them. 

Most parents aren’t sure what to do with their own anxiety, no one ever taught us how to have a healthy relationship with anxiety, much less, how to teach our kids a healthy way to deal with it. And you know that as a parent, everything your kid feels, you feel it double. If they’re hurt, you hurt, if they’re happy, you’re happy, and if they’re anxious, you feel anxious. And many of us have been taught that it’s “Bad” to feel anxious. So we accidentally teach them that feeling anxiety is dangerous or bad, that having a feeling is a threat, and we subconsciously teach them to avoid it. 

So if your child is nervous to go into preschool, and you worry that this will be terrible if they are anxious so you get really anxious and scared and then you hesitate to leave them or decide to not send them, you send the message to your child that preschool must actually be a dangerous place and they will respond by accentuating the crying and clinging behaviors. 

Now I’m not saying that you need to be stone cold, emotionless and unfeeling with your kids. Quite the opposite. Instead, model for them what to do with difficult emotions.  It’s ok to say “It’s hard for mommy to say goodbye too. But I know you’ll have a great time after I leave. And I will miss you, but I know I can handle that until I see you soon. I love you”. And then the ultimate form of communication is that when you confidently walk off, you demonstrate to your child that you are absolutely confident that they are safe. That you trust that they can handle it. And then they do. And you come pick them up and say “I knew you’d have a great time! I missed you and I’m so glad to see you again! I’m so proud of you for doing that hard thing” And their confidence grows and grows over time. 

Kids look to you to know how to respond to stimuli. You can teach them to have a healthy relationship with fear. Instead of teaching them to avoid anything that makes them anxious, you can teach them to have a good relationship with their emotions. If you want therapy, go to a therapist who teaches you how to relate to your own anxiety and gives you the skills to support your child. 

One of the big mistakes parents make around anxiety is worrying that anxiety will harm their child. We get really worried about our kids being worried, or that anxiety will ruin their lives. We’re afraid of fear itself. So that takes us to 

2. Anxiety Is Not A "Negative" Emotion

#2. The second, super important mindset to have around anxiety is that “Anxiety” is not a “negative emotion” it’s just an emotion. It happens to be uncomfortable, but it’s not “bad”. Every emotion serves a function. The function of anxiety is to make us ask the question “Is this dangerous and should I take some action to ensure safety?” And our body makes sure that you pay attention by giving you strong physical sensations. 

I want my kids to have occasional anxiety. I want anxiety to give them a nudge before crossing the street- “Is it safe to cross the street right now?” I want my kids to feel some anxiety when hiking near cliffs or when climbing trees. I want my kids to have anxiety ask them that question, so that they can make an intentional choice about which activities are safe, which activities are risky but worth it, and which activities they should avoid.

The problem is not the anxiety, it’s when we label anxiety as the danger. Instead of thinking “It must be so awful and dangerous for my child to feel anxiety.” Think “It’s ok to have feelings. But I don’t have to act on them”  Instead of thinking “I must protect them from this dangerous emotion. Anxiety will harm my child.” No it won’t.  A bad relationship with anxiety will harm your child. Avoiding anything that makes them anxious will harm your child. Letting anxiety boss them around will interfere with their happiness, but just feeling anxiety- it won’t harm you. 

So your tendency, when your kid is scared to go to sleep, is to help make that anxiety go away by letting them sleep in your bed, or when they’re anxious about meeting new people – to let them avoid that, but the truth is, that avoiding anxiety and triggers actually makes anxiety worse, not better. They don’t learn to be independent, they don’t learn the skills to talk with people, and that’s more harmful in the long run than a feeling.  

So instead think: “I can handle feeling this emotion, and so can my child. I can make space to feel this and still be ok.”

So some of the things you might say (and we’ll go a lot more into this in the second video) are:

  • It’s ok to feel a little nervous honey, but you got this!
  • This feels a little scary huh? Sometimes I feel scared too. What will you choose to do? 
  • Are you a little worried about what’s going to happen today at the doctor’s? That’s ok, let’s talk about it. 
  • Instead of saying “It’s so terrible to feel anxious” Say “This is tricky” “That feels uncomfortable, huh?” or “This looks a little hard for you. But I’m here, we can face this together” 

And when you show them that you’re not scared of feelings, when you connect with them even when they’re feeling anxious instead of trying to escape it by protecting them or enabling them to avoid their feelings – you teach them that they can handle it too. Because you’re modeling it. 

When we learn to have a good relationship with our feelings in general, we get really good at feeling them and then they pass on their merry way. It’s only when we resist, suppress or give into emotions that they start to control our lives. 

Dr. Becky Kennedy says- I don’t know any kids who grow into adults and say “Whew, good thing my parents did everything perfectly, because now I never feel anxiety ever!” No, good parents don’t prevent their kids from feeling anxiety, they teach their kids how to relate to anxiety, how to interact with anxiety in a healthy way, a way that gives them more choice and power in their own lives. A sense of self-efficacy, a belief in their own resilience. Our goal is to wire our kids to have a resilient relationship with anxiety, not to wire our kids to get rid of anxiety

3. Being Sensitive Is A Neutral Trait, Not Negative

But, you may say, my kid is super sensitive, they are really anxious, they are too anxious. This can’t be healthy right? Well it depends on how you look at it. Kids are born with personalities, there are many types, but some kids are born more sensitive, more anxious, more cautious. I have a kid like that.  In our western culture we’ve been programmed to believe that this is a negative trait, that being “sensitive” is a bad word. But I must disagree, it’s a trait, and the world needs sensitive people. People who are attuned to others, people who notice when things are going wrong before they’ve gone too far, people who are gentle and quiet and thoughtful, being sensitive is a gift, not a weakness. Some of the most impactful people in history have been highly sensitive, and that trait helped them change the world for good. I’ll give two examples: Ghandi and Einstein.

Mahatma Ghandi was a highly sensitive person who felt the pains of his fellow Indians suffering under Colonial Rule. But instead of leading a violent revolution, he used his sensitivity and empathy to power his nonviolent resistance movement, which ultimately led to India’s independence. Because he felt deeply and empathized with others, he was able to connect with people from all walks of life. He inspired and motivated people to join his cause by appealing to their emotions and their sense of morality.

Albert Einstein was known for his deep sensitivity and emotional intelligence, which allowed him to approach scientific problems from a unique perspective. He was able to think deeply about complex issues and question traditional assumptions in his field, ultimately leading to groundbreaking discoveries in physics.

Einstein was also deeply empathetic and advocated against war and violence. His emotional intelligence made him a powerful communicator, which helped him explain complex scientific ideas to the general public.  Overall, Einstein’s deep sensitivity was a crucial part of his scientific and humanitarian achievements, and he used it to make a positive impact on the world.

Being sensitive is a personality trait, but knowing what to do with emotions is a skill that can be learned. We’re all born with tons of huge emotions and there’s no handbook, but little by little with the right guidance we can learn practical skills to get better at feeling. 

So I’m going to challenge you to look for the gifts your deeply feeling child has. And if you struggle to see them, I want you  to do your own work. Read the book Quiet, or The Highly Sensitive Person, or take Dr. Becky’s class on deeply feeling kids. 

I’m also going to invite you to consider changing how you talk about your child. Instead of describing your child as dramatic or needy, use words like deeply feeling, intense, caring, observant. Check yourself for your own biases and your own defense mechanisms. Did you by chance have to suppress your own deep feelings to survive growing up? Did you have to create walls to keep those deep feelings from surfacing? And have those walls impacted you negatively? Your child may have a message for you. The children we struggle with as parents are often there to teach us about our own blind spots, our own unhealed wounds. Instead of seeing them as disordered, ask the question- what can I learn from them? Parenting is a wonderful opportunity to do our own work. 

And that takes us to our fourth point. 

4. The Anxiety Cycle: When We Avoid Anxiety, It grows

Anxiety is a natural and helpful emotion that is supposed to protect us from real physical danger, like rattlesnakes, and cliffs. But when we feel anxious about things that are actually safe, like public speaking, or social situations, and then we avoid those situations, we actually increase our anxiety. 

When we interpret a situation as potentially dangerous, like a strange dog, and then we avoid it, our brain sends out this rush of relief. As if to say “oh that was close I could have died!” But our brain doesn’t stop there, it then says “let’s make my human do that again so I can survive the  next time”. So our brain then increases our anxiety around a situation. Avoidance of things that we think may be dangerous actually makes our anxiety grow and grow. 

But because avoidance feels good in the short-term, it can be kinda addictive. And that leads to feeling more and more anxiety which spirals into a situation where our world is shrinking as we avoid more and more situations. This is the Anxiety Spiral. Can you see it in yourself or with your kids? 

Anxiety Disorders In Children Are Absolutely Rreatable

The good news is that just as the brain learns something is dangerous when we avoid it, it can also learn that something is actually safe when we face it and survive.  Our brain’s inherent ability to rewire itself is called neuroplasticity. This means we can change the physical structure of our brain by changing how we think and how we act. In essence, the most powerful and effective way to combat anxiety is to distinguish between real and perceived danger. And then to gradually face those fears, instead of avoiding them. When we do this, our brain learns that we’re safe and decreases our anxiety. 

As parents, it seems like we feel double whatever our child feels. And because of that, we can fall into the pattern of desperately trying to help them escape their discomfort by trying to rescue them from anxiety. But the more we rescue them from anxiety-provoking situations, the more we send the message that “This is dangerous” “You can’t handle it on your own” and that actually wires children’s brains to be more anxious. 

An anxiety disorder is not a permanent trait, while being sensitive may be somewhat hardwired, generalized anxiety is not a purely genetic trait. It is a scale, not an on/off switch and you can learn the skills to turn the volume down on anxiety so that it no longer runs your child’s life. You or your kid can actually be highly functional, successful and happy, even if you’re highly sensitive. 

Summary Of How To Help An Anxious Child

So just to summarize. The most effective way to help kids with anxiety is to help the parents develop a new framework, because they model for the kids 168 hours a week how to relate to emotions. 

  1. Kids look to parents to know how to respond to a stimuli– We can model to them that they can handle the challenges they face like school, public situations and bedtimes. Mantra “We can do hard things” 
  2. Anxiety is not a “bad” emotion, it’s just a messenger asking us to consider whether something is safe and to carefully choose our actions. Use words like “Tricky, difficult, or uncomfortable” instead of bad, terrible. 
  3. Being anxious or sensitive is not a negative trait. Look for your child’s gifts and acknowledge them. 
  4. Avoiding anxiety-inducing situations actually makes anxiety worse. Instead, it’s our job as parents to help our kids develop the ability to develop confidence in their ability to face their fears.

We have to start a new Mindset. “It’s ok to feel anxious. But we can still choose our actions.” And in the next three videos we’re going to move into some really practical skills you can use to help your kids work through anxiety and actually decrease it over time.  

Please click on the link below to learn how you can help someone with mental health challenges.  

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