Five Steps to Set Your Anxious Child Free
Anxiety exists for good reason: to alert us to potential danger. But potential danger is different from actual danger, a distinction that sometimes gets lost, especially for children. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 7% of children struggle with worry significant enough to get in the way of being a kid. A full 30% will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder prior to age 18. If your child is one of them, you are not alone.
Knowing you are not alone provides a bit of comfort. Knowing what to do would be even better. Take heart. The problem might seem daunting, but anxiety is both predictable and manageable once you know its tricks. These 5 steps will help you set your child free.
1. Teach your child about false alarms.
There are two almond-shaped bits in your child’s brain called the amygdala. They are the equivalent of a brain alarm, alerting your child to anything that might hurt, embarrass, confuse, or otherwise cause trouble for them. When activated, the amygdalae trigger the fight-flight-freeze response, which basically prepares your child to take protective action in case the danger is real.
That’s all good. You want your child to have what is essentially a smoke detector tucked deep within their brain. What you don’t want is for them to do the equivalent of running out of the house when there is a piece of toast stuck in the toaster.
That’s where you come in. Teach your child about the danger-detector in their head, and the fact that it sometimes gets things wrong.
2. Stay calm in the face of your child’s anxiety.
Children look to adults for cues about safety. When your child is panicking, it is essential for you to remain calm. Tell yourself, “My child is afraid, but not in danger.” Breathe. Let your steady presence signal safety, knowing that the goal is not to make your child’s anxiety go away.
You read that right. The goal is not to make the anxiety go away. It’s to learn to respond in a different way.
3. Change your relationship with anxiety.
Anxiety is uncomfortable, for both you and your child. It’s tempting to do whatever it takes to make the feeling go away. But actually, what anxious children need most is help tolerating the nervousness and uncertainty they feel. You don’t need to rescue your child because they are not in danger; there is nothing about the situation you need to fix. In fact, rescuing and fixing are guaranteed to make things worse.
4. Let go of rescuing and fixing.
Accommodating anxiety means capitulating to it. Providing repeated reassurance. Allowing avoidance. Doing whatever it takes to help your child feel better. It’s what most parents do, understandably. They see their child suffering and want to make things better. The Yale Child Study Center found that 97% of parents routinely accommodate their anxious child in hopes of reducing the anxiety. Unfortunately, the opposite occurs. Accommodation increases anxiety, not in the short term, but in the long run. It reinforces the notion that your child really is in danger, and that they are incapable of rising to the occasion. But neither of those are true. So, the trick is to teach your child to move toward scary-but-safe things.
5. Help your child be brave.
Fostering bravery means carving out small, manageable steps to help your child walk towards the things that scare them. The direction of the steps matters more than their size. Have your child watch the dogs that frighten them from afar, then gradually get closer. Encourage them to tell you what they want to eat in front of the waiter before ordering for themselves. Choreograph practice going upstairs with you standing on the landing before having them venture up alone. The point is to practice these things specifically and intentionally so your child can get clearer on the fact that the discomfort they feel is a false alarm. This is do-able. It just takes time.
Like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, anxiety talks big but holds no power. It makes your child feel afraid without putting them in actual danger. It is easy to unwittingly cede control to anxiety attempting to quiet the feeling, but short-term fixes never work. Instead, you can use these 5 tips to pull back the curtain on anxiety and set your child free.