When children are anxious, parents also get anxious because they want to fix their child’s anxiety. As humans we have an amazing mind whose job is to help us solve problems, and we naturally also want to rescue, fix and resolve our children’s pain and struggles. Unfortunately trying to rescue our children from their emotional struggles can often backfire.
Below is a list of the most essential Do’s and Don’ts to help you become a more efficient parent to your anxious child:
- Do validate and acknowledge their feelings. Remember that your children’s perception is their reality. Even when you know their fears are unfounded, they need to know you are there for them, you are listening to them and that you care about them.
- Do meet them halfway as needed. Often children are too scared to try new or scary things. Validate first, then find a way to meet them halfway. For instance, the other day, a child who is socially anxious got a boy toy at a fast-food place. The parent and child discussed a plan so she could get a girl toy. Then the parent took her by the hand, called the clerk’s attention and then invited the child to look at the clerk and ask for the toy she wanted. She was able to do it with some coaching and support. She was praised for her effort. Parents can help their children take small steps towards the goal of becoming comfortable with situations they perceive to be uncomfortable and unpleasant.
- Do help your child refocus. Anxiety will cause a storm in your child’s mind. As she gets tangled up with all the thoughts and feelings, she needs redirection and coaching to refocus on the here-and-now. We are not talking about distracting her. We are talking about helping your child notice her surroundings and becoming aware of the present moment.
- Do create an “I can try new things” culture in your home. The idea is to help your children understand that our bodies can get used to many things. Talk about how our eyes get used to the dark and our ears get used to the loud sounds at the movie theatre. When we go to an outdoor pool our toes touch the water and it feels cold. Once we get in, our bodies get used to the water and we start having fun. Provide the opportunity for them to try new things and get used to them even when they seem unpleasant. Remind them that our bodies and minds can get used to new things. Parents can model this attitude by trying new things themselves.
- Do acknowledge and praise your children’s efforts. Parents are often worried and focused on what their children cannot do and won’t do. They forget to notice their children’s courageous efforts when they try new things. Look for opportunities to let them know you are noticing their efforts at being brave.
- Don’t contradict their feelings and thoughts. This is the opposite of validation. Put yourself in your child’s position. If you are feeling anxious and upset about something and your best friend tells you, “Don’t worry, just get over it,” how do you feel? You may feel worse and even angry about the lack of validation. Children need to be validated too. Denying their feelings may contribute to decreased confidence in themselves and the world around them.
- Don’t punish, threaten or hurt your child in any way. Sometimes parents are frustrated and at their wit’s end with their child’s meltdowns. Sometimes they believe that threatening or spanking them is the only way to stop their behavior. This response may work immediately, but it may have negative long lasting results. Your child’s insecurities and fears may worsen.
- Don’t coddle their fears. It’s a natural survival response to want to avoid unpleasant situations, feelings, thoughts, and sensations. When you overprotect and rescue your children they will not learn to problem-solve or that they can do hard things.
- Don’t give them reassurance. Yes, we know kids need reassurance in many situations. However, they often ask for reassurance to get rid of their doubts and anxiety. Your know your child best, and if you are able to notice their reassurance seeking is only to find relief from anxiety, it’s best to validate and practice empathetic responses.
- Don’t force them to face their fears. Quite often parents try to do this because they have heard this is an effective way to treat anxiety and OCD disorders. However, when doing this you and your child need to have learned appropriate skills to follow this approach. Start by taking small steps towards the fear. You can help them do this as mentioned earlier (Do meet them halfway as needed paragraph above).
Being a parent is difficult and when your child struggles with anxiety, the challenge is magnified. Don’t despair because there is enough research indicating anxiety and OCD disorders can be managed. As the parent of a child struggling, you need to remember that you also need to take care of yourself and find outlets to find peace and relaxation at least one hour a week. Keep in mind the famous metaphor about the oxygen mask when you travel by plane: “You must first place the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on your child.” This is because if you don’t survive, who will take care of your child? Self-care is necessary and essential!