Helping Your Anxious Child

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns experienced by children. In fact, everyone will experience the symptoms of anxiety in their lifetimes, often to some degree on a daily basis. Anxiety is caused by the body’s primitive “fight or flight” response, which is designed to either prepare it for action or for running away to safety. This was important in our cave man days as a response to physical threats like wild animal attacks and is still an adaptive response today, for instance acting as motivator in preparing for an exam or performance.

“Everyone will experience the symptoms of anxiety in their lifetimes”

Whilst anxiety is common, some individuals and children will experience anxiety more easily, more often, and more intensely than others. This can be a problem if left untreated as it can lead to the development of depression in later life, cause missed opportunities in career and relationships and contribute to a lesser quality of life.

There are some simple things that parents can do to assist an anxious child to overcome and manage their anxious behaviours:

 

Attention

As a parent, the attention you pay to certain behaviours can act as an important influence on your child. For instance, if you pay increased attention to anxious behaviours, these are encouraged. If you remove the attention from anxious behaviours they decrease. Non-anxious behaviours can also be increased by rewarding, or giving praise to, your child when these are demonstrated.

Assurance

It is common for parents to spend a great deal of time reassuring their anxious child. This has the effect of encouraging your child to think that the feared situation is OK simply because you have said it is OK, rather than them generally believing it is. If you give reassurance, it should reinforce reality-based beliefs that your child will be OK in the situation because they have the necessary skills (courage; relevant abilities) to deal with it.

Realistic Thinking

You can encourage your child to engage in realistic thinking to assist them to manage their anxiety. This process involves identifying the thought driving the anxiety and assessing it in a realistic way by looking for evidence that either does or doesn’t support it. By encouraging your child to ask and answer these questions when they experience anxiety, they may come to realise that in a number of situations the feared outcome is either extremely unlikely to occur, or if it did occur, it would not be that bad. To develop this skill, you can ask your child to think about the following:

Identify the thought behind the feeling

  • What am I worried about?
  • What do I think will happen?

Look for realistic evidence

  • How likely is this?
  • Has this happened before? (To me? To others?)
  • How often does this happen?

List alternatives

  • What else could happen? 

Assess the Worst Case Scenario

  • Really, what is the worst that could happen?
  • How often does this happen to people?