The 7 Steps to Helping Your Child Cope with Anxiety

These are unprecedented times. Chances are if we are feeling anxiety during the current Pandemic, our kids are too.

We were living in a culture of unease even before the Pandemic began. Kids these days are experiencing more anxiety than ever before. From elementary schoolyard woes to university students avoiding controversial and anxiety-producing scholarly conversations, it has gotten to the point where some kids just aren’t equipped to deal with life’s stresses.

The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable; however, experts estimate that only 30% of people seek successful treatment for their symptoms. We need to teach our children (and ourselves) that anxiety can be managed, especially as our kids go back to school.

Helping your child deal with their anxiety will require you to deal with your own. Dr. Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons are co-authors of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents and leading experts on combating anxiety. Their research suggests that anxious kids are likely to have anxious parents. Breaking the worry cycle requires you to face the hard feelings with your child now, so you can set them up for success dealing with anxiety-inducing situations in the future. In this article, I will share their 7 steps to helping your child cope with anxiety.

The first step is to identify possible root causes for your child’s anxiety. Asking yourself the following questions will help get to the source.

Is your child not feeling closely attached or aligned with you?

The most fundamental source of frustration is when a child can’t sense your closeness. Put yourself in your child’s shoes when you drop them off at school or daycare for a whole day or when you leave for a job as an essential worker when the news is spewing images of peril. You can lessen this separation anxiety if you teach your child how to keep you close even when you are apart. Encourage your child to express their concerns and let them know their feelings are valid.

Are you not taking care of yourself?

Your child might see you struggling and not taking time for self-care. Neglecting your well-being can have adverse effects on your kids. It is so important to create a village of support! It can be complicated to set up playdates and social activities during COVID, so take advantage of online playgroups and close family visits as often as you can. Sneak away for a nap, a shower, a simple breathing exercise. We need to find what sort of balance works for us, so we don’t burn out.

Are your thoughts and behaviours contributing to your child’s anxiety?

Parenting during a worldwide Pandemic can take an obvious toll on our mental health. Stress and pressures are magnified in the unknown. We see our children struggling with anxiety, a little spin doctor in our brain beats us up and tells us we’re to blame. Sometimes we are simply anxious about our kids being anxious. The end result is that our own anxiety becomes a key part of the problem. It is important to work on both problems at once. We need to look within ourselves to see how our thoughts and behaviours might be interfering with our child’s ability to cope.

One of the huge issues we have with anxiety is that we tend to play defense. Avoiding symptoms is a form of defense. But you don’t win the game playing defense. Outsmarting anxiety requires you to play some offense, too.

How do we do this?

A common question with kids is whether to push them into an activity they don’t want to do. A great example for right now is going back to school—whether that’s in person or online. It’s scary. They haven’t been there for months. They haven’t seen their friends. Their teachers are wearing masks. Some of the classrooms are unrecognizable.

It hurts to watch your kids in turmoil, but at the same time you want them to start forming a relationship with anxiety as early as possible. They need to no longer see themselves and anxiety as one, but rather see anxiety outside themselves, with an offensive plan of action.

Be mindful that there will be bumps along this road less travelled. But with these 7 tips, we can help prepare our children to return to the world strong and resilient.

  1. You can expect to worry.

Know that anxiety is a sign that this is something that matters to you. We don’t get anxious about things that don’t matter to us. Breathe deep and know that this is normal.

During a perceived threat, you might hear alarm bells ringing and feel adrenaline pumping. Until you learn to question it, expect these threats to feel real.

  • Talk back to your worry.

We can teach ourselves and our kids to play offense by externalizing the threat and talking back to our worry.

Separate your anxiety from you and teach your kids to separate their anxiety from them. While breathing throughout, try talking back to your worry, saying “OK, I know this feels like an emergency, but I know I’m fine. I know you’re trying to protect me.”

Ask your kids if they’d like to give this internal voice a name. Identify their Worry Bully. This will help them externalize their anxiety and see it as something outside of themselves, further allowing them to play offense.

Don’t get too excited about the symptoms themselves. Anxiety is meant to help us (similarly to anger) as long as we don’t get stuck in it. Even when you’re feeling the symptoms, keep doing what you’re doing, but listen to the clues that your anxiety is giving you.

3. Be unsure and uncomfortable on purpose.

This point centres on a key attitude shift that relates to “The 3 C’s”: CALMNESS, CERTAINTY, and COMFORT. Although current advice suggests slowing down, simplifying, and opting out when we’re experiencing anxiety, it is best to work through our struggles. We are playing defence when we avoid the symptoms. We can end up sacrificing important personal goals this way. Without working towards the 3 C’s we may never develop a sense of capacity and resilience. We can let our kids know they are on the right track if they are uncertain, have some anxiety and/or are uncomfortable. And we can ascertain we are on the right track if we have these feelings too.

4. Help your child to focus on what they want

For instance, let’s say your child wants to have a sleepover. He/she is suddenly interested in dealing with their anxiety about separation. They are now motivated to learn new skills like talking back to the “Worry Bully” in their head (see Step 2).

Although we may have our own worries that they cannot do something, we need to check our own thoughts and words so that we don’t hold our kids back. 

5. Breathe – only as a reboot!

Breathing can be an important tool in anxious situations, but relying on your breath to calm you down is a defense mechanism. We should use it as a brief pause before jumping back into the game. We don’t want to avoid the fight; we want to be on the offence—seeking improvement and moving forward.

6. Bridge back to past successes

You can remind yourself and your child of past situations where they successfully stood up to their worry or overcame hard things. Ideally, you could help your child record their success in their own words or voice, so they can come back and use the proof as evidence of their capacity to move through anxiety.

7. Take action on your plan

To move forward, it’s critical to make an action plan and then take action on that plan. We can model this for our children and show them how we show up through fear or anxiety.

On the bright side, having to face anxiety in childhood can actually help your child grow stronger. Just like our muscles need to stretch and experience pain, our kids become stronger and more resilient by being stretched and challenged.

Developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld states that we all have “special needs”—we are imperfect beings and have struggles all our own. Struggle is necessary and healthy for our growth. Parents often feel guilty when our kids share that they are struggling, like it is our responsibility to help them avoid the struggle.

But we must learn to accept that anxiety in children is a message. We can help them evaluate what it means and how to overcome it. Your confidence as a parent will help decrease your child’s anxiety.

Don’t worry about following the steps perfectly. Remember, we don’t need to be perfect! Jump in, muck about, meander. Simply start talking about the strategies with your kids now for a brighter, healthier, and less anxious future.

If you’d like more resources and encouragement, consider signing up for a free Stop Losing your Cool and Love Parenting session with me. I love helping parents help their kids overcome anxiety. I’m always happy to discuss what is possible for your family. Great Parenting can be simplified! For the fuller version and more in depth explanation of each point,watch Part 1 and Part 2 of the video presentation on Facebook.