It’s perfectly normal for children to sometimes show signs of anxiety. Defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome, anxiety in most cases can come and go. As a matter of fact, different stages of development tend to bring with them different fears and worries for kids. Babies and toddlers for instance, may be afraid of loud noises, heights, strangers, and separation, while preschoolers can start to fear the dark or being on their own, school- age children on the other hand, might be anxious about social situations, tests, ghosts, or physical harm, etc. These emotions are normal and valid for your little human. As parents though, we know our children best. If your child is chronically distressed or nervous, then it’s best to seek professional advice. Otherwise, read on for seven ways you can help ease your child’s anxiety.
The goal is not to eliminate unpleasant emotions, but to help your child manage them. Teach your child the power that they have to choose how to respond to triggers early on. You can’t always rearrange the world for their happiness, but they can rearrange their view of the world. Avoiding things that make your kid anxious can be helpful in the short term, but it only reinforces the fear in the long run.
Have an open conversation with your child about why we feel a certain way to begin with. For instance, fear is a coping mechanism we have to keep us safe. If we happen to be in a dangerous situation, fear is adaptive and it can save our lives. However, if it reaches a point where it is interfering with their everyday lives, it’s time to slow down and pay attention. Rather than repeating the tendency to run from, deny, or avoid fear, consider mindfully facing it as an incredible opportunity for growth.
In the movie Rise of the Guardians, the main character Jack Frost defeats Pitch Black (fear) by having fun. Play is a universal love language for children. A study recently released by Australian and Dutch researchers found that playfulness can aid in developing greater reductions in attention problems, anxiety symptoms, and behaviour issues. Playing with your child demonstrates positive modeling as you the parent choose to fall, fail, be defeated, succeed, laugh, and tumble.
Telling your kids not to worry won’t stop them from doing so. No one likes to feel afraid, and if they could just let go, they would. This exercise is designed to do just that–to let go. Allow your children to worry openly, in limited doses. Create a ritual called “Worry Time” that lasts for about ten minutes. Within those ten minutes, let your kids write, draw, or talk loudly about whatever it is they’re anxious about, no restrictions. You can even make a worry box for them to dump their work into. When the time is up, close the box and say goodbye to the worries for the day.
Social anxiety is heavily linked to perfectionism. Fear of failure, fear of looking bad in front of friends, or fear of not meeting a goal can all make for a pretty anxious kid. Help your child to focus on the process instead of the finish line. By doing this, you teach your kid to stretch out happiness, that it isn’t just limited to the few minutes of excitement after you reach your goal, and you also delight in the entire process because you see progress and enjoy it.
Know the difference between validation and agreement. If a child is terrified about going to the dentist for instance, you don’t want to belittle her fears, but you also don’t want to amplify them. It’s best to listen, show empathy, help her understand what’s about to take place, and encourage her to feel that she can face her fears. The main message being, “It’s okay to be scared. We all get scared sometimes. I’m here for you, and you can get through this.”
Kids are perceptive, and they follow your example. One time, when my mom was going through something stressful, she became irritable and I noticed that during that period, I too, even unconsciously, became more susceptible to snapping at others. If this strong parental influence is true for full grown adults, what more for younger kids? Let your children hear or see you managing anxious feelings calmly and they will do the same.