Updated: Apr 9
It is a normal part of children’s development to have stress, worries and fears. However, anxiety becomes an issue when it stops children from doing the things they want to do and it begins to interfere with important aspects of their life such as school, family or friendships. Here are some ways in which parents can help their child if they are experiencing anxiety.
Teach your child about their anxiety
In order to gain control over their anxiety, children need to first understand what it is and how it affects them. Anxiety impacts a child’s body, their feelings and their thoughts. For example, parents can talk about what happens to their body when they are anxious and help them identify how it impacts them. Common ways anxiety affects the body include having an upset stomach, tense muscles, sleep disturbance and increased heart rate.
Realise that the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help your child manage it
It can be difficult to see your child stressed and unhappy. Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it only reinforces their anxiety in the long term. It is important to discourage avoidance of the things that they are anxious about, such as school or homework.
The best way to help children overcome anxiety isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it. The goal is to actually help children to learn to tolerate their anxiety and cope as well as they can, even when they’re anxious. Anxiety actually lessens over time as more contact with the stressor occurs. Psychologists call this the habituation curve. It demonstrates that the more children are encouraged to engage in the things they are fearful of, the more likely that anxiety will follow its natural curve and lessen over time.
Introduce challenges in small steps
Facing challenges is a necessary part of life and it builds resilience in children. Begin with small steps to help children meet challenges. For example, a child who is frightened of dogs might start by watching a television show about dogs. Once they become comfortable with this then they can try another challenge such as looking a dog who is walking past the house. Think of this process like a stepladder that children can gradually climb.
Encouragement and praise is important
Children with anxiety need encouragement to attempt new things. It is important to praise them for trying and having a go at something they are fearful of. Start with small things that might be challenging and celebrate their success at each step.
Practise coping skills
Practise using coping strategies for challenging situations such as deep breathing and positive self-talk. Help children talk about their problems and support them to come up with possible solutions.
Be a helpful role model
Children look to parents for security and safety in the world. If parents can show children that they can cope with anxiety and stress themselves then this provides a helpful model for children to follow. For example, show your child that you use positive self-talk in stressful situations such as saying something to them like ‘I am really nervous right now but I am going to have a go at doing this task’.
It’s also important to model confidence to your child that its going to be okay, that your child will be able to manage their anxiety, and that, as they face their fears, their anxiety level will drop over time. If parents remain calm and positive then their children will feel more brave to confront their fears.
Seek professional help
Psychologists are able to help children and adolescents to manage their anxiety. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be an effective approach to give children and adolescents the tools and knowledge to cope with their anxiety. Speaking with your family doctor can also help and counselling rebates through Medicare are available if your child has a Mental Health Care Plan.