A new school, a scary movie or a big soccer game could be to blame. Whatever the cause, anxiety among children is difficult for everyone—including parents. It’s also a normal part of life, even for little kids. One in eight children has an anxiety disorder—and many more struggle with nerves or fearfulness intermittently.
Here’s how to help your child cope with anxiety:
Acknowledge the anxiety as legitimate
Although parents often have the best intentions when they tell a kid there’s nothing to be afraid of, Sharma says it’s better to recognize the fear than minimize it. “Just simply say, ‘I understand that you feel afraid,’” she suggests. “Right off the bat that will quell the anxiety in the child.”
Get your reaction in check
Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, cautions that parents who get themselves worked up in response to their child’s anxiety may only worsen the situation.
“Many parents collapse into tears and can't bear their child's pain. Others feel frustrated and even angry expecting their youngster to ‘get over it,’” says Walfish.
If you have anxiety about your child’s anxiety, try to model good coping skills. Be mindful of your own negative thoughts and try to replace them with positive ones. Let go of perfectionism and use the “count to 10” method to stabilize your breathing when anxiety hits. If that proves to be a struggle on a consistent basis, consider seeking counseling of your own.
Coach them through relaxation
After you’ve acknowledged how your child is feeling emotionally, recognize how she is feeling physically and help her take control of her body. Sharma recommends long breaths through the nose and out the mouth, and a process called progressive muscle relaxation, which helps children tense and release their muscles.
Talk it out
Once your child has relaxed physically and has controlled breathing, reflect on what kicked off the anxiety in the first place. “Ask them, what do you think you’re feeling afraid of? Really treat them like people who know themselves—which they do—and [who] can express themselves, which most kids beyond the age of three or four really can,” Sharma explains.
When the child opens up about the cause of the anxiety, Sharma recommends parents engage in something called “thought dispution” by gently pointing out some of the irrationalities behind the child’s fears—which is different in significant ways than saying the child is being irrational.
If the fear is more logical, Sharma suggests parents express they can relate by opening up about times they were nervous, too.
Know when to get help
All kids experience some anxiety but most children don’t have severe anxiety. If the fears do impact a child’s ability to sleep, maintain relationships or attend school, that’s when parents should talk to a professional. For most kids, talk therapy will help them feel more in control and empowered.
Parents should remember that all kids experience anxiety at one time or another. Acknowledging its existence is the first step to feeling better.