As the parent of an anxious child, I have been researching (and experimenting with) different methods of not only reducing anxiety in children, but ensuring that their self-confidence is intact and behaviour is appropriate.
It is our job as parents to teach.
Many people are reluctant to change, especially children. Some children are markedly more anxious about doing tasks, going places, working through a problem (and the mistakes that are ultimately made), trying new things, etc.
As parents we must help them to learn how to cope with these challenges rather than avoid them. Trying to avoid stressful or anxious situations does not teach your child how to cope. It does not give him/her the sense of pride and accomplishment. Children need the chance to face their fears, complete a task, or solve their own problem. Each challenge and task faced successfully gives them a sense of accomplishment.
Anxiety can be a funny creature. Sometimes it takes on the form of sadness and even defiance. No parent wants to see their child sad (or defiant). So, often we find ourselves accidentally teaching anxious kids inappropriate coping strategies. We do this by ignoring inappropriate behaviour (I’m constantly nagging, it seems!), solving problems for the child (“here, let me do it!”, instead of guiding them through the process) and taking over responsibilities that the child may have complained about (somebody has to do the dishes!). Although these tactics temporarily smooth things over and the child is seemingly happy, we have inadvertently taught the child that whining, complaining and refusing, does pay off.
Some tips to help reduce anxiety in children
Reduce excessive stress or tension in your home (excessive fighting or arguing) that can have negative effects on the child. It is also beneficial to plan something that can be done together each day, even if only for a short period of time (listen to music, do chores, read a story, go for a walk). You also need to be quick in dealing with family conflict (but not try to solve problems for them), and finally try to minimize showing your frustration by not yelling or raising your voice.
Make a routine. Construct a schedule with specific times for homework, quiet time, meals, and personal time. Establish a routine for bed time that may include reading or ‘chat’ time between child and parent. Keeping an open line of communication will help develop better ways to manage their anxiety.
Give consequences. Your child’s anxiety does not give him or her right to behave poorly, improperly or inappropriately. It is really important to set expectations and limits for your child – and follow through on the consequences for inappropriate behaviour. (Maybe losing computer or television privileges if chores are not completed). The other important part of this is to set these limits and consequences in advance, and discuss them with all family members at a calm time. Children are happier when they know the rules and what happens when they break them. Finally, just as important as setting these limits; be sure to give praise and sometimes rewards when your child meets or adheres to the expectations. You do not want to reward them for everything they do, but just knowing that sometimes they will get a reward (without expecting it all the time) is a good stimulus. (This is true, especially when they see others getting rewarded for doing things).
Be supportive. Let your child know that it is normal to have fears (we are all afraid of something) and that we can learn to deal with them. Listen to your child when they are upset, and let them know that it is okay to talk about their feelings. Help them figure out ways to deal with stress, and realize that you understand their fears. (I know you do not like…., but how can we make it easier for you to do?) Do not be afraid to use humour as it one of the best ways to deal with stress, just make sure you are not laughing at them.
Encourage their independence. It is extremely tempting to want to do things for your anxious child, especially when they are nervous or fearful – or to avoid an unwanted response, outburst or behaviour, but it is better to let them do things for themselves. That is how they learn the skills and abilities to cope with life. Encourage them to try things on their own, give them responsibility and brainstorm ways to deal with problems or situations (make up for a missed assignment at school, or deal with a problem with a friend). Remember through everything you need to be supportive to your child and they need to know you support them, but taking over and doing everything for them, does not benefit them in the long run.
Build self-confidence. Praise your child for his/her accomplishments and for facing their fears. Involve them in activities that make them feel proud, something they are good at, and help them instill a sense of belonging and pride. Give them chores and tasks that they can succeed at and earn praise. Every little accomplishment adds to their self-confidence.
So, what have I learned?
- I’ve learned is that following these tips is not easy!
- Being consistent in dealing with your anxious child is most important. It is difficult, time consuming and sometimes makes you feel like you are constantly harassing or nagging your child.
- It is difficult to hold your ground and not give in simply to avoid arguments, tantrums or pouting. However, it is a necessary evil.
- If you are starting it later than you should have – breaking your old habits is hard.
I offer this last bit of information in candor – I have made changes, sought help and believe I am doing the right things to help my anxious child.
This was not an exhaustive list of ways to help your anxious child by any means, but it is a good start. In future blog I will give further suggestions (and as I discover what works!).