Parenting Your Anxious Child
This summer has flown by– it’s hard to believe that we’re only a few days away from August 1. As we look forward to the beginning of the school year (with whatever mix of feelings it may bring!), I wanted to share a fascinating study about treating child anxiety conducted at Yale University and published earlier this year. Basically, the results of this study suggested that teaching parents how to respond at times that their kids were anxious was just as effective in reducing kids’ anxiety as providing evidence-based cognitive-behavioral treatment (i.e., teaching kids behavioral strategies to calm themselves down, teaching them how to notice and evaluate their anxious thoughts) directly to kids themselves.
This finding underscores the power that we have as parents to shape our kids’ emotional experience, and to support their growth in areas of difficulty. The parents participating in this study weren’t overtly trying to teach their kids any skills to manage anxiety. Instead, these parents were simply (ha, it’s not so simple!) shifting the way in which they themselves acted, the way in which they responded to their kids at the times that kids were anxious.
These parents were allowing their kids to experience the feeling of anxiety… rather than letting them avoid or escape it. They were encouraging their kids to tackle the situations that scared them. And they were sending a message of confidence in their kids’ ability to cope.
How can you do the same?
- Be mindful of your own anxiety, and build your own skills around managing worry and distress. We know that anxiety has a genetic or heritable component– and it’s hard for us to be most effective with our kids when we are caught up in our own emotional experience. It’s hard to see our kids worried or upset! But we can accidentally increase or perpetuate our kids’ anxiety if they notice that we are feeling anxious too. And at times that we get swept away by our own worry about our kids, we also are more likely to let them avoid anxiety-provoking situations… and to inadvertently send them the message that we think they aren’t capable.
- Think strategically about what messages you want to send your child(ren), and make sure that your words and behavior are in line. For example, providing your child with too much reassurance can validate kids’ fear or lack of confidence in their own ability to cope by implying that you agree that a situation is threatening or unmanageable. Your job is to send a message of calm confidence!
- Know that you can empathize with and validate your child’s feeling of anxiety AND encourage them to battle it (rather than allowing them to avoid anxiety-provoking situations!). We often tell anxious kids that worry is like a bully, trying to boss them around– and their job is to boss it back! You want to be sending the message, “I know this is scary for you, AND I know that you can do it!”
- Encourage your kids to DO the things that make them anxious. Often, this means breaking down those situations into manageable steps (like wading into a swimming pool from the shallow end, rather than diving into the deep end right off the bat!). So for example, if your child is afraid of going to the bathroom by themselves, you might first stand by the door. Once that feels comfortable for your child, you might stand further away, but still within earshot. And once that feels comfortable, then you might move even further, so that you’re no longer within earshot. No matter what the situation, you can strategize with your child to break down scary situations into small, manageable steps.
- Praise your child for their successes. “I know you were scared, AND YOU DID IT!”
If you’re looking for more ideas and information, I recently weighed in about this topic in Real Simple and The Everymom. (We also love this book as a deeper-dive resource for parents of anxious kids!)
I will be releasing an online class on exactly this topic later this fall, so please stay tuned! In addition, several of our staff therapists (myself included!) offer parent coaching that focuses on exactly the same strategies taught to parents in the Yale study. If you’re looking for help in figuring out how best to support your anxious child, please reach out. This stuff SEEMS easy, but can be really challenging to put into practice– so consider letting us help you tailor a plan that works for your child and family.