Helping your child cope with anxiety

Q: My 10-year-old is suddenly worrying about different things and just seems overall anxious. I tell her everything will be okay, but that helps relax her for only a bit. Is there anything else I can do to help her?

A: It can be hard as a parent to watch your child go down the rabbit hole of worry. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What could my child possibly have to worry about at this age?” As a parent, you are not alone in dealing with this and the good news is, there are different things you can do to help! But before diving into discussing different techniques you can try out to help your little one cope, it is helpful to step back and view the world through their lens. Sure their worry about who to sit with at lunch, passing an upcoming math test, or walking down the hall in the dark may seem minor to adulthood worries, but to them it may feel just as big. Going down the path of comparing your worries to their worries can be invalidating and create a roadblock from you being able to actually help them cope effectively.

The goal is to help them identify their anxiety and cope with it in a healthy way. In order to do that, you have to hear them out. When you notice your child is becoming anxious, explore it with them instead of simply saying, “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” While that approach can provide temporary relief, it also comes with the risk of closing communication lines and no skill to cope in the future. Instead encourage your child to tell you about how it feels to them. This gives you the opportunity to reflect their experience and supply names for what they are doing or feeling. For example, “It sounds like you are worried about tomorrow’s reading test.” Then focus on assisting them in developing a game plan to address how they can cope if things do not go their way. Continuing with the example of the reading test, you can explore what your child can do if they do not do so well on that test. Allow them to come up with their own ideas and of course help as necessary to brainstorm effective ideas, such as asking the teacher for help in the future. A plan helps your child view the situation not just as a problem, but rather a problem that also has a solution. It also sends the message that you are confident in their ability to cope with the challenge.

Another skill to consider is giving anxiety a name, such as the worry monster. This approach helps your child separate the anxiety from themselves and puts them in a better position to then talk back to it. One great way to talk back is by creating coping cards. Examples include: “I can do this” or “Take a hike worry monster!” If your child does not want to carry a card, consider designating an object to represent what the card would say. For example, clipping a purple paperclip to your child’s backpack or notebook that can serve as a cue for their response.

Visualization is another helpful tool to cope with anxiety. For instance, encourage your child to imagine or even draw out what the worry monster looks like. Once that is done, have them imagine the worry monster on a boat floating far, far away until the worry monster is no longer visible. Alternatively, you can talk to your child about real life experiences that were fun or relaxing. Have them think about it and use their imagination to recall as many details as possible using all their senses. The idea is that by visualizing something pleasant, their mind is not focused on the anxiety producing thought or situation and also the visualization elicits a positive sensation.

It is helpful to remember that often childhood anxiety passes with time, especially after children learn ways to cope with the worry monster. However, if you still feel as though your child could benefit from further support, consider scheduling an appointment with a specialist.