Our kids are like us in more ways than one, that’s just the way it is. In spite of ourselves, we act as models: we teach our kids to talk in a certain way, think in a certain way, and act in a certain way. We also pass on our anxiety.
Everyone experiences anxiety. There is proof that our performance is driven and enhanced by anxiety, without which much would be left unaccomplished. However, too much anxiety can poison your life. And you’ve probably heard that the more anxious you are, the more likely your children are to suffer from anxiety-related disorders.
Anxiety is one of the most common issues children and adolescents struggle with. If ignored, anxiety can have a negative impact on the emotional and social development of a child and can even lead to severe depression in adulthood.
The good news is that parental anxiety doesn’t have to be a death sentence. According to a new study, there are ways in which parents can help reduce their children’s level of anxiety. The study found that parents of anxious children often make a few mistakes in their attempts to protect their children from anxiety.
How to help your anxious child
1 | Step into the fear.
The desire to protect their children is innate to most parents. Your daughter is scared of swimming, you make her do dance instead. Your son is shy, you avoid situations in which he has to express himself or make new friends. This is one of the greatest mistakes you can make when dealing with an anxious child. Overprotection increases anxiety rather than decreases it.
Research suggests that to help overcome anxiety, you should avoid constantly shielding your child. However, it is important to only try age-appropriate activities and keep your child’s level of fear in mind. Taking baby steps one day at a time can teach your child that he has the necessary resources to overcome his fears. Focus on solutions and explore multiple options. Reflecting on “what’s the worst that could happen” helps arm you with necessary coping tools. Teach your anxious child to explore his environment and develop skills to address difficult or unexpected challenges.
2 | Put on your “rose-colored glasses”
Children’s perception of anxiety-provoking situations is largely determined by how you perceive and speak of those situations yourself. Your child will interpret her environment based on your interpretation. So analyze your explanatory style and consciously choose to adopt more optimistic interpretations.
Your child’s anxiety will increase if you present situations as dangerous and irresolvable. Talk about dangerous situations by all means but, more importantly, teach her how to overcome or avoid them. For example, yes, cars can be dangerous but they’re also great. Practices such as always using zebra crossings increase safety.
3 | Let go
If you’re over-controlling and critical of your child, chances are high that your child will suffer from high levels of anxiety. Encouraging your child to participate in decision-making can help reduce his anxiety. Ask questions. What do you think would happen if…? What do you think you can do if…? What would you do?
4 | Work on yourself first
You know how they say that teaching your child about emotional regulation is one of the greatest lessons you can teach her? The same applies to adults.
Anxiety disorder in adulthood can often be traced to childhood anxiety disorders and often requires parents to address the issues underlying their own anxiety. What drives your anxiety? If you’re unable to handle your own anxiety, you’re bound to pass it on to your child rather than help her handle her anxiety.
Talking about situations that made you anxious and how you handled them will help teach your child that anxiety is normal and can be overcome. Ask her to let you know if she thinks you’re acting anxious. Your anxiety is reflected in your actions and in your words so choose your words carefully. Remember that kids’ fears are sometimes driven by what they overhear. There are books and courses to help anxious parents deal with their anxiety in order to avoid passing it onto their kids. If you’re struggling with anxiety, seeking help will help both you and your children.
When you’ve worked on yourself, encourage your child to talk about her anxiety and, more importantly, what she can do to manage anxiety. Explore possible options that prevent you from stepping in too quickly and options that encourage your child to manage her feelings by herself (calm-down jars, calm-down boxes, power cards, etc.).
5 | Choose flight over fight
Sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t get over your anxiety. In such cases, it’s better to flee. If you have an irrational fear of dentists, don’t take your child to his dental visit – ask someone else to do it. You won’t be able to hide your anxiety if it’s an anxiety-provoking situation for you.
Anxiety is a normal part of life. You’re anxious when you start a new job, or when your kids start school, or when you’re unsure of the outcome of a situation. Your children will always face anxiety. Addressing anxiety is not about suppressing it, it’s about teaching your child to identify the feeling and manage it in an appropriate way.