BY DR. JENNIFER SULLIVAN
All children experience anxiety from time to time and some degree of anxiety is normal and even helpful. However, anxiety that occurs too often and with too much intensity can lead to significant distress or problems in important areas of functioning (for example, at home, school, or with friends).
In an attempt to alleviate their child’s anxiety, parents often find themselves answering the same questions repeatedly, giving reassurance, and going out of their way to accommodate their child. Although these responses may quell a child’s anxiety momentarily, they are typically ineffective over the long term. As such, parents can be left feeling frustrated and confused, not knowing what they can do to help alleviate their child’s suffering.
However, once armed with accurate information and evidence-based strategies, parents can be powerful allies in helping children learn to manage their anxiety successfully. That said, changing well-established patterns of thoughts and behaviours can take time, so keep your expectations realistic and practice patience with your child.
Learn about anxiety. Developing a good understanding of anxiety is critical. You will want to learn about the roots of anxiety and the difference between normal/adaptive anxiety and problematic anxiety. It will also be important to understand the four components of anxiety—thoughts, physical responses, behaviours, and emotions.
Next, help your child learn about anxiety. Discuss how anxiety can be adaptive and how it involves the “fight-flight-freeze” response. The Anxiety Canada website has a great 2-minute video called Fight Flight Freeze—A Guide to Anxiety for Kids that can be used to explain this concept. Also, help your child understand that although anxiety is unpleasant, it is not dangerous.
Having accurate information about anxiety can reduce feelings of shame and embarrassment, and can provide your child with a strong foundation to begin facing their fears, taking risks, and talking back to their anxiety.
Schedule “Worry Time.” Anxious kids are often bombarded with anxious thoughts throughout the day. To help them gain some control over their worries, assist your child in setting up a specific time each day for worrying. Then, each time a worry thought pops up, have them imagine putting the thought in a strong box and locking it away until their scheduled worry time. Worry time should last about 15 minutes. During this time, have your child talk about their worries and assist them with problem-solving.
Talk back to worries. Begin by externalizing your child’s anxiety. In other words, have your child think of their anxiety as an entity separate from themselves. For instance, have them give their anxiety a name, such “The Worry Bully,” and encourage them to visualize the entity (e.g., an ugly, mean-spirited little troll who enjoys picking on children). Discuss with your child how the Worry Bully likes to tell lies to make them feel scared. Then, help your child talk back to the Worry Bully (out loud or in their head) with statements like Go away! I don’t believe you! Get lost!
Once your child can effectively use this strategy, you can begin cutting back on answering the same worry questions over and over. Simply say to your child that the Worry Bully is at it again—telling them lies to make them feel scared—and remind them to talk back to the bully.
Re-set your system. Anxiety often results in negative physical reactions such as racing heartbeat, muscle tension, stomachaches, and shortness of breath. Teach your child to use strategies such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and physical activity to help counteract the unpleasant bodily sensations that come with anxiety.
Parent coach, author, and speaker, Dawn Huebner, wonderfully illustrates these strategies in her award-winning book What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (designed for 6-12 year olds and their parents).
“Changing the Conversation” is a monthly column by Jennifer Sullivan, Psychologist and CEO of Sullivan + Associates Clinical Psychology, that focuses on normalizing mental health issues through education and public awareness. It appears on the Healthstyle page on the second Tuesday of each month.