As a parent, navigating a child’s fear or anxiety response can be difficult, especially when it occurs in a new or novel situation. Anxiety is a term used to describe a system that helps humans and animals become aware of possible environmental threats and dangers. Sometimes, these threats and dangers aren’t physically present, but we can still imagine and react to them. This can also prevent us from engaging in new experiences, especially as a child.
It seems to be that the older your child is, the easier it is to identify their anxiety symptoms, but that’s not always the case. What about younger children? Young kiddos may not have the expressive language skills to communicate their experiences but will likely show it by internalizing or externalizing their behaviors.
Usually, the most significant indicators or physical symptoms you can look out for are:
- Racing heart
- Stomach ache
- Impaired sleep
- Seems grumpy all-day
- Stiff muscles
Although some of these symptoms can seem more like a medical condition or pediatric development, there is a way to tell the difference between that and anxiety. With anxiety, the body is responding to the brain, the flight or fight response, which sends a message to the body to stay out of danger. If you notice that your child has a cluster of the above systems around the same situation, you can assume your child might be anxious or worried about that particular situation. As a parent, it is our job to assess the environment, ensure that there is no real threat, provide support, provide comfort, build coping skills and help our little ones work through difficult emotions. This is learning to manage fear, anxiety and worry adaptively.
As a parent, we never have the intention of creating anxious children, however, the way in which we respond to certain situations can actually reinforce your child’s anxiety or fear responses, making this behavior stronger. This is known as parental accommodation. Parental accommodation in the anxiety literature is how we alter the environment in our experiences to prevent or relieve our children’s fear or anxious feelings. When we don’t allow our kids to have true experiences for themselves, we actually create unnecessary worry and fear in them. Now, the way we respond, including our attitude about their anxiety matters.
Here are the do’s and don’ts for navigating your little’s anxiety:
1. Be overly protective.
Protection is important in human development. It’s how we survive. If, however, your child is not in danger, that protection is not necessary and is misplaced. Taking on the role of over-protector for your child when danger is not present can convey to your child that they require protection, making them feel less safe and more vulnerable.
2. Be overly demanding.
When your child is anxious, parents who demand that their children not be or feel a different way in that moment, can create more anxious symptoms for the child. When parents expect their child to undertake specific behavior changes such as “suck it up” without the necessary motivation and willingness on the child’s part, that is when the parents are being demanded.
1. Provide support.
Support means accepting that your child is scared but knowing they can cope. In those anxious moments, show your child that you accept how they feel (that you get it), that you don’t judge them, and that you know they will be okay despite feeling anxious. Acceptance plus confidence from the parent equals support.
2. Prepare for those anxious moments ahead of time.
Engage in statements that provide acceptance and confidence, such as, “It’s hard, but you have the power to get through!” or “You feel worried, and it’s okay to feel that way.”
3. Make a list of possible accommodations.
This will help you determine how you can provide proper support.
4. Reward attempts for trying new and challenging tasks.
Whatever the cause of anxiety, you can step in confidently and provide opportunities to teach adaptive skills to raise emotionally healthy children.