Parenting Your Anxious Child
Parenting an anxious child can leave us feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Fears children have are often irrational or just don’t make sense to adults. In my last blog we explored some ways anxiety may be showing up in your child’s behavior. If you haven’t seen that one yet, read it here. This blog is a companion piece focused on some parenting strategies that can help you manage (not totally eliminate) your child’s challenging behaviors and hopefully feel more satisfied in parenting your anxious child.
Let’s talk about some ways we can help our children cope with their thoughts and feelings and learn to replace their actions.
Anger and irritability
Your child’s behaviors are a function of getting their needs met. Understanding this can help you keep your cool as a parent in those moments when your child is having trouble keeping theirs. Learning to identify the underlying need a child may have when he is expressing anger or irritability can help to quickly diffuse the situation. For an anxious child the world is a threatening place. Managing irritability can be hard when you are looking out for danger, having a constant barrage of “what if” thoughts or trying to keep others happy and safe to ensure your own security. The acronym HALT is one I use and teach often, and it stands for Hungry Angry Lonely Tired. This can be nothing short of a miracle once mastered, and many meltdowns can be managed by assessing for basic needs first. Sometimes anxious kids may just be feeling lonely or scared and a snuggle or YAMA (you and me alone time) can be enough to take them out of that angry mood.
Managing our own emotions as parents is important here. We want to model how to appropriately express and handle our anger. If you don’t want your child to yell, don’t yell. If you want your child to have patience, have patience. I am not saying you have to be a perfect parent, but we should be striving to model more often than not, the behaviors we want to see in our children. Kids watch first and listen second.
Overestimating negative emotions in others
This one can be hard to manage if you don’t know when it’s happening. Some children will ask their parents if they are “mad” or ask if they are “ok” when no other cues in the environment would warrant the question. For those kids, you can acknowledge your actual feeling at that moment, (e.g. “No I’m not mad, I was just concentrating) and help them to recognize the similarities and differences in facial expression. You may need to reassure them that they are not the cause of your furrowed brow. For some kids, they may not verbalize their overestimation of emotion on your face, and instead, just assume your emotion and act out with their own emotions in response. In either scenario, verbalizing your own feelings frequently can help children learn to pick up social and environmental cues as well as understand the nuances facial expressions better over time.
Being able to name your feelings consistently means that you have to practice checking in with yourself too (see HALT acronym above) and making sure your own needs are met.
Focus on the process and not the outcome. Living in America, perfectionism is an epidemic. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and our children notice this. They are also compared to others as they strive for honor roll or to win the gold medal. Some children thrive on healthy competition and may be able to emotionally handle all that comes with that, but for an anxious child, this perfectionism may have reached an unhealthy level, and may be causing low self esteem or even depression.
By focusing on the process of learning and growing instead of the final outcome, we are teaching children to value every part of the process and not to only value being best or first. In school, instead of praising for an ‘A’ instead, focus on the hard work they put into getting that grade or the improvement they have made from one quarter to the next. The same can be applied to sports or extracurriculars. Not every child can be the best, and no child can be the best if they are afraid to fail. Failure should not be an ‘F’ word. Mistakes cannot be avoided! Helping children understand and normalize mistakes as part of the growth process can help them to put less pressure on themselves, even if we live in a society that puts a lot of pressure on them.
Hanging on the fringe of social situations
Encourage play dates at your house or other comfortable places for your child to start. Talk to your child’s teacher about encouraging play or games in which all of the kids can get involved. Thinking of and sharing something special with classmates is another way to help your child be more involved and make new relationships with peers. Anxious children very much want to be a part of social situations, but don’t want to experience uncomfortable emotions of peer interactions. Creating situations in which your child succeeds socially will reinforce their ability to be included. We have to drive the bus so to speak in encouraging and allow opportunities for children to practice being in social situations.
Extreme people pleasing
One of the best ways to combat people pleasing is to validate your child’s emotions and reassure them that they are loved and cherished, regardless of the circumstances. Helping children learn that they are accepted for all of their parts, positive and negative, can help an anxious child gain confidence to be true to themselves. Managing your own expectations and practicing radical acceptance will help your child to be able to decrease the need for extreme people pleasing to be accepted.
Trouble making decisions
How do we overcome most things? With practice! It may be easiest to make decisions for your child in the moment but making and living with our decisions is an important skill we need to practice to be mentally and emotionally strong. Give your child no more than two choices, and when they ask you to make the decision for them, don’t. Reflect that they are worried about making the wrong choice and reassure them that they are capable of making good choices, and which ever choice they make will be fine. Help them with the pros/cons or problem-solving aspect if necessary, but make sure the final decision is theirs.
This may be hard for children to handle in the beginning and they may get frustrated at parents who no longer make decisions for them. In the long term, however, we see a decrease in that learned behavior of non-commitment due to anxiety, and as children gain confidence in their abilities to choose wisely, they will ask for other’s opinions less and less.
For an anxious or overly sensitive child, picky eating isn’t just about the way a food tastes. It can be the smell, the sight, or a fear that the food will be harmful. Desensitization can be effective in helping children overcome their anxiety about certain foods. Become food scientists or detectives, and regularly chop, dissect, and smell new foods. It takes several tries for new tastes to be acquired. Don’t give up, don’t reward for eating foods, and don’t get mad. Remember that your anxious child may be having an emotional response to mealtime. Being calm and positive about the experience will help your child manage their emotions and avoid associations of mealtime being unpleasant. If you are worried your child isn’t getting the vitamins and nutrients they need or eating too many unhealthy foods, talk to your child’s doctor.
Concentration and focus issues
Mindfulness practice with anxious children has multiple benefits. One of those is increased concentration and focus. Anxious children may lose focus at school because of their hypersensitivity and hyperarousal. This may be due to external stimuli like noises or distractions in the classroom, or internal stimuli like growling stomachs, hearing their heartbeat faster or noticing a pain or uncomfortable sensation. Practicing focused attention on a single experience can help children to increase their ability to focus. Mindfulness also teaches children to be able to get used to unpleasant stimuli and to re-focus their attention on the task at hand. Mindfulness paired with affirmations such as, “I am healthy, I am safe” can be extremely calming, and easy for children
Nightmares or a fear of sleeping alone
Children who have nightmares often ask to sleep with parents and may have an intense fear of sleeping alone. Like most of the other fears children have, they can be reinforced easily if we give in because it’s easier in the moment. I have worked with countless families over the years who were struggling with sleeping issues and needed help getting their kids out of their beds. In full disclosure, I have struggled with this as a parent myself, so I know how tough his issue can be, but I also know what works in getting kids to sleep in their own beds. Routine is key, and sticking to your word, even when your tired.
If your child is having trouble sleeping in their room from the beginning of the night, you may need to re-evaluate or create a different sleep routine. Adding relaxation exercises before bedtime, reading an extra book, or adding music or white noise in your child’s room can all help. You may have to stay in a child’s room until they fall asleep, but you should have a plan to reduce the amount of time you are in your child’s room until you are able to leave after tucking them in.
If your child is waking in the night and coming into your room take them back to their own room. It is not always easy to do when we are exhausted, but children quickly learn that their behavior is not working. Charts, stickers, and token economies can also work great for helping get kids motivated to stay all night in their own room.
If you are interested in parent coaching on how to help your child manage their anxiety without losing your own sanity, email me to set up an appointment.