The kids and teens I counsel worry a lot. They worry about their family, friends, appearance, homework, their future, what people think of them, and unexpected changes. If you are the parent of an anxious child, you are not alone. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition of childhood and adolescence. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 children aged 13-18 will have a serious mental health disorder, with the median age of onset of anxiety being six years old. It’s normal for children to feel occasional anxiety. Knowing that your child struggles with intense fear can cause deep anguish and make you feel helpless. Giving your child strategies to battle anxiety can reduce tensions and help your child (and you) feel empowered.
Below are some ways to calm your anxious child.
1. Model the behavior
Staying calm is an important skill for any parent and especially important when raising an anxious child. In addition, we are our kids’ model for how to face hard things. In order to teach your child to stay calm, we have to model calm behavior. Anxiety can make kids and teens irritable and angry. And, let’s face it, over time, that behavior can be frustrating for the entire family. It’s easy to get flooded with emotion and interpret your child’s anxious behaviors as a sign of disrespect or oppositionality. However, this is usually not the case. Anxiety is a survival mechanism designed to allow us to act swiftly in a scary or threatening situation. It doesn’t respond to logic, reason . . . or yelling.
When attempting to calm your anxious child, avoid teasing, criticizing, or lecturing. Instead, model the behavior you want to see. First, learn as much as you can about anxiety and the various ways it manifests cognitively, emotionally, and physically. Second, learn about your child’s specific anxiety triggers and help them to recognize those triggers for him or herself. And, finally, resolve to model the behaviors you wish to see. For example, when you are feeling upset or anxious, show them that it’s okay to pause, walk away if needed, and return when you are feeling calm. You can even demonstrate breathing exercises openly, or loudly announce to everyone in the room that you are getting out for some fresh air. When life gets chaotic, it’s important to ground ourselves and frequently revisit the lessons we are attempting to teach our kids.
2. Don’t Avoid Activities
Avoidance, inflexibility, and resistance are common behaviors associated with anxiety. Children who experience anxiety will often express “what if” statements when concerned about bad things happening to them or someone they love. Other symptoms of anxiety are more subtle or internal. For example, your child may complain about headaches, stomach pain, or mental fog. All of those symptoms can lead your child to avoid. They may avoid school, friends, family gatherings, a calculus exam, or that Lacrosse tryout. While it’s tempting to rescue them from a situation causing them intense fear, facing those fears is one of the best lessons your child can learn. Besides, avoidance ultimately intensifies anxiety over time. It’s essential that you encourage your child to do hard things. When you refuse to allow your child to quit or avoid something that makes them anxious, you are demonstrating confidence in your child and his or her ability to get through life’s toughest hurdles. Their ability to face their fears will be a gift that will last through adulthood.
3. Validate Their Experience
In addition to encouraging your child to face their fears, it’s important to communicate empathy and support. Begin by validating their experience. Consider the following statements of support:
- That sounds really hard.
- I’m here for you.
- I’m so sorry this is so tough for you.
- I see you working really hard on this.
- What can I do to support you?
In addition, as your child is facing that challenge while feeling anxious, consider saying: “I know how tough this is for you. But, remember that even though you feel discomfort, you can handle this. This feeling won’t last forever.”
When your child has completed the task, it’s time to celebrate! Provide positive reinforcement by sharing how proud you are. Consider saying, “I am super-proud of you and I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
4. Teach Simple Coping Skills
Before your child can successfully face his or her anxiety, first, she will need to learn anxiety management coping skills. The goal is not to rid your child of their anxiety—it’s just not possible. The goal is to help them to learn to manage it so it doesn’t limit their life. Therefore, encourage your child to practice some different coping skills the next time he or she feels anxious. One powerful skill is journaling. Encourage your tween or teen to write down anxiety triggers, scary thoughts, uncomfortable feelings, and—what they feel grateful for. And, yes, it can be done on their phone. For younger kids, drawing, reading, playing with puzzles, and blowing bubbles can be helpful in reducing anxiety. Regardless of age, teach your child to breathe in a calm, relaxed way. Consider this breathing protocol that I teach my own kids and clients: Breathe in through the nose for a count of four. Hold for a count of four. Then slowly breathe out from the mouth for the count of four. For younger kids, I add: Breathe in like you’re smelling fragrant roses and then blow out like you’re blowing out a birthday candle.
Other coping techniques include . . .
- Taking a 15 minute walk out in nature
- Taking a bath or a shower
- Listening to calming music
- Having a long chat with a friend or a loved one
- Talking back to worry (Tell worry: “Hey, worry, I got this!”)
- Reminding themselves that this is temporary and that they’re going to make it through
Remember, coping strategies don’t completely eliminate anxiety, but they do help to manage it.
5. Teach Positive Self-Talk
Much has been said about positive thinking and that’s because it actually works. Kids who are anxious tend to engage in negative thought patterns and critical self-talk. The negative and critical talk often center around how they “can’t handle this” or all the “awful” things that will happen. These statements actually reinforce anxiety. Adopting the right mindset is key. Did you know that it takes 17 seconds to create a new positive thought? When intrusive or fearful thoughts occur, encourage your child to replace them with positive thoughts.
Here are some examples:
- I feel nervous but I am okay.
- I’m frightened but that doesn’t mean I am not safe.
- I can do hard things.
- I’ll be so proud of myself after I conquer this.
- I can practice my breathing technique when needed.
Thinking, expressing, and visualizing positive ways to manage life’s various obstacles promotes a resilient mindset. Encourage your child to practice this exercise multiple times per day for two weeks and see if they notice a shift.
A question I am often asked by parents is, “When should I worry about my child’s worry?” My answer is this: When anxiety shifts from being normal (albeit mildly annoying to family members) to causing significant interference in major areas of your child’s academic or social life.
Ongoing and debilitating anxiety can be harmful. Left untreated, anxiety often persists into adulthood and can lead to school failure, depression, or despair. If you suspect that your child may be struggling with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to address it early. Start by speaking with your child’s pediatrician or seeking a referral to a mental health specialist.
Chinwé Williams, PhD, LPC, NCC is a licensed mental health therapist in Roswell, Georgia, specializing in adolescent, young adult, family, and women’s mental and emotional wellness. She is the owner of Meaningful Solutions Counseling and Consulting. She is the co-author of Seen: Healing Despair and Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection. You may order it here.