Tips on how to Help Your Child Cope with Anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most prevalent disorders found in children. The American Psychological Association defined anxiety as: " An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure."
There are many mental disorders that are under the category of anxiety. Some of these include specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, separation anxiety, selective mutism, panic disorders, etc. The prevalence rates for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents ranged between 15-20% (Beesdo, Knappe & Pine, 2011). Considering that the rates are high and that these disorders affect many children and adolescents, we wanted to provide you with some tools to help your child cope with his or her anxiety.
Anxiety can often manifest in stomach pains, behavioral issues (non-compliance or temper tantrums), and fears that extend and affect social and school situations. In children, it is often hard to voice or even grasp that what they are experiencing is anxiety. Therefore, as the adults in their lives, it is up to us to identify and help them through this. Thus, we have compiled some tips to help your children cope with anxiety:
1. Empathize with your child- show your child that you understand and can picture what they are going through. This is a validating experience that can help relieve anxiety in and of itself.
2. Deep breathing-Anxiety is a disorder that often manifests physically. Therefore, changing the bodily responses by doing some deep breathing and calming the body down can affect the thoughts and behaviors that are related to the tension and anxiety experienced. Deep breathing is an amazing tool to help cope with anxiety. Teaching your child that when they feel a certain way, or experience the anxiety (however they phrase it, for instance in their tummy), they can take ten deep breathes, thus sending messages to their brain that they are in a relaxed state. This will result in decreased anxious thoughts and less behavioral responses.
3. Modeling- We are our children’s greatest role models and teachers. They learn from us so many things, including our anxious responses and tendencies. Modeling to your child that certain things are not scary, or that you and your child can both handle a situation is an amazing teaching method for your child. For instance: If you are afraid of dogs, your responses to the dog might include shouting, running, or even freezing. This will be modeled to your child who will in return also fear dogs. Instead try to brace your fear by approaching the dog with your child and petting it. Tell your child that there is nothing to worry about and show your child, by using your body language, that you are not tense or afraid. This will truly show your child that their fears are unreasoned.
4. Progressive muscle relaxation- Like deep breathing, this technique also works on they body to help cope with anxiety. Tensing up various areas of the body and then relaxing them helps release the tension and therefore create a more calm bodily experience that in turn signals to the brain to relieve the anxiety and relax.
5. Cognitive restructuring- Teach your child how to restructure his or her thoughts. When the anxiety is thought related, challenge this with evidence for and against your child’s anxious thoughts. Reframe these thoughts by asking your child to think of other possibilities. For example: If your child has thoughts about others judging him or her negatively, evaluate the evidence for this and against this. Did people actually say anything? What were people doing that made it look like they were judging you? Were there times where people behaved similarly but your child received positive feedback? Then reframe the thoughts, ask your child to think of other possibilities that others weren’t paying attention to your child, finding other reasons that may have impacted their behaviors. Back to the example of the negative evaluations, you can try to understand with your child whether people may have been tired and therefore didn’t look at him or her. Maybe people were nervous about their presentations. This method can teach your child to expand his or her view and reduce the anxiety.
6. Imagery- Help your child imagine himself or herself exposing themselves to the anxiety provoking event. Have him or her close his or her eyes, imagine what it would be like, and try to experience it fully. Afterwards, ask your child how he or she felt during the exercise. This is a way to help your child before going onto tip 7 which is exposure. By imaging you are showing your child that the event isn’t as scary as he or she thought and that he or she was able to cope.
7. Exposure- Exposure has been found to be a very useful method for dealing with anxiety. You may need to speak with a psychologist or a trained clinician to help with this to ensure that the exposure is done correctly but the concept is as follows. Exposure is based on gradually exposing your child to the things they fear or feel anxiously about. This will show your child that nothing bad came from the exposure and therefore diminish the anxiety. Once again, here we recommend working with a trained clinician to ensure that this is done correctly.
Overall, while anxiety is a very prevalent disorder, it is also treatable. We hope these tips were beneficial and can assist your child in coping with the various anxiety related events or thoughts.
Beesdo-Baum, K., Winkel, S., Pine, D. S., Hoyer, J., Höfler, M., Lieb, R., & Wittchen, H. U. (2011). The diagnostic threshold of generalized anxiety disorder in the community: a developmental perspective. Journal of psychiatric research, 45(7), 962-972.