Helping your child deal with anxiety

Childhood fears, such as being scared of monsters in the wardrobe, are common enough, but what do we do when these fears become overwhelming and affect our children’s everyday lives? Fortunately, there are some ways you can help

A non-medical definition of anxiety might be a fear of something that might happen in the future. Even if these fears are unfounded, they feel acutely real to a person, especially a child, who experiences them. The key to helping a child overcome their anxiety is to help them overcome these fears.

Anxiety and fear are medically defined as a collection of three types of reactions to a situation or object. They might include physical reactions like trembling or avoidance; mental reactions like thoughts of danger, distress or terror; and physiological reactions like sweating, heavy breathing or, in serious cases, heart palpitations.

Almost every child has some fears and periods of anxiety, but for the most part, they are of the milder sort and it is estimated that only 8% of all children develop an anxiety disorder. Most children actually grow out of their fears and anxiety over one particular aspect of their life, like monsters under the bed, for example. If your child continues to hold on to a specific fear for a long period of time, or if they develop more severe reactions to their anxiety, you should consult a professional.

Otherwise, you can focus on helping your child overcome their anxiety in the following ways.

The first step is to recognise that a child feels that their fears are real, so telling them to “get over it” just won’t work. Instead, you should talk to your child about their anxiety so that they can name the fear that is bothering them. Even simply talking about it helps reduce the negativity surrounding the fear and should help to start to alleviate the anxiety that it is causing. You can tell a child repeatedly that there’s nothing to worry about, but until they accept that internally, the fear and anxiety will persist.

Another way to help a child who has anxiety is to get them to rate their fear on a scale of 1 to 10, so that they can see that sometimes the fear isn’t as bad as they had first imagined. You can use imagery with younger children, like asking them if their fear is as big as a mountain, or an elephant, or a school bus. Anything that helps them rank the level of fear and anxiety they feel will assist them in self-rationalising how serious the threat might actually be.

It’s never too early to teach children some coping mechanisms to deal with their fears or anxiety. These might include helping them to develop some positive self-statements to use, like “I will be okay”, particularly if they are by themselves at school or on the way home. Taking deep breaths when they feel afraid is another good tool for an anxious child, as is visualisation of positive things like playing on the beach or being safely home with their family.

Modelling our own good behaviour when it comes to anxiety or fear is another way to help our children. If we slow down and take
a couple of deep breaths when we are afraid or anxious, our children will see that it works for us and may be more willing to try it out themselves. On the other hand, if we fall to pieces when we are afraid or tense, then our children may follow us along that route as well. It is a proven fact that children who have parents with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop anxiety themselves, so how we manage and model our own anxiety is very important in helping our children deal with theirs.

Another thing that we can teach our children is to use humour to deal with anxious or stressful situations. An adult or child who can use humour to diffuse their fears will have a much easier time in dealing with anxiety.

On a final note, you could speak to friends or other family members if you are worried about the level of anxiety exhibited by your child. They may have been through similar situations and have some valuable suggestions to offer. If you are still worried, it is always okay to ask for help from the many professionals who regularly deal with this common yet serious disorder, and who will be able to support and help you and your child with their anxiety.

It is a proven fact that children who have parents with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop anxiety themselves, so how we manage and model our own anxiety is very important in helping our children deal with theirs.

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