A child who is a worrier or is often anxious can impact an entire family, leading to all family members worrying about and avoiding situations that may feel upsetting to that one child. Stop for a moment and think: what do you avoid or what do you create to prevent that child from feeling upset . . . . Extra bedtime rituals? . . .Your child sleeping with you? . . . Not going to parties or others’ homes because your child feels uncomfortable in these situations? While this may make the most sense and be the easiest at the time (who wants an upset or unhappy child?), in the long run, it’s not the most helpful for your child. The reality is that experiencing and navigating uncomfortable situations is how children learn that they have the strength and ability to deal with upset and anxiety, develop problem-solving skills and increase self-esteem. I know this is easier said than done. Here are a few things you can (and should!) do to help your anxious child:
Acknowledge the anxiety and talk about its impact. When you see that your child is worrying about something, say so. (e.g. “I’m wondering why you don’t want to go to Billy’s birthday party. Are you worrying about there being a lot of people there?”). Let them talk about the things that make them uncomfortable. At this point, don’t offer solutions, just listen. Your feedback at this point should be neutral and a reflection of what they’re telling you (e.g. “That sounds like it’s really difficult for you” or “I’m sorry you’ve been having such a hard time with that”. These types of statements validate their feelings and let them know that you care.
When it’s your turn to talk (after you’ve listened thoroughly!), help your child to understand their worry as just one of the many feelings that they experience in their day– the worry isn’t who they are, just one feeling that makes up a small part their lives. Let them know that everyone feels nervous and worried at times – these feelings are part of the evolutionary make-up of our brains, protect us from harm and are expected in different situations. For some people the ‘worry part of the brain’ gets turned on too often and this is why we worry about more things than others.
Help your child understand that worry, like other feelings, sometimes feels really big and overwhelming. Just like at times we may feel really happy, at other times we may feel really worried. Explain that, at these times they need to get control of the worry so the worry doesn’t take control of them.
Teach them some strategies to use when their worry feels big and overwhelming: Deep breathing – slow breaths in and out. You can encourage this by helping them to imagine blowing bubbles (or practice with bubbles!). Progressive muscle relaxation – have your child sit or lie down in a comfortable position and tense and relax each muscle group starting at the feet and working their way up to the top of the scalp. Worry as a shape – have your child describe the shape of the worry including its color and texture. Then they should imagine bright sunlight coming into their body, heating the shape and shrinking it. They should keep imagining the sunlight pouring into their body until the shape has shrunk significantly.
Continue to provide support and comfort to your child as you encourage them to face and participate in the situations they would prefer to avoid. ‘Rescuing’ your child by allowing them to avoid distressing situations will continue to reinforce their belief that they are not capable of handling their worry.
As difficult as this is as a parent, the ultimate goal is for your child (and you!) to face situations that cause anxiety rather than avoid them. This reinforces their strengths and helps build the confidence they need to face other difficult situations.