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Monday, March 24, 2014

Helping Your Anxious Child

When kids show signs of anxiety, it impacts the entire family. Parents often talk about their concerns for the child and want advice about how to help. Here are a few tips I frequently give parents in distress:

1. Is it Fear or Anxiety? Help your child to distinguish the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is defined as the feeling that occurs when there is a legitimate threat to one’s safety, such as being in the street when a car is coming. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the feeling that occurs when the body reacts to a stressful situation that is not truly dangerous, such as being in the dark. Our bodies are programmed to react to fearful situations with a burst of adrenaline so we’ll have the energy to outrun a predator. Unfortunately, we often have similar reactions to our modern day fears, like giving a presentation, where we no longer need this type of energy! Start by helping your child determine if they are reacting to a true threat.

2. Slow the Body Down: Once the situation is identified as anxiety, the next step is to slow the body back down. Help your child practice taking deep breaths from the abdomen, in through the nose and out through the mouth. If your child does this quickly, aim for a count of 3 in and 5 out as you count aloud to cue the breathing. 

3. Talk through the problem: Try to have your child identify the specific worry. Once it is identified, it is much easier to talk through and determine how to proceed. For example, one child I worked with in my practice worried that he would trip and fall in school. After the worry was shared, I asked, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” The boy explained that if he fell, he might hurt himself and others might laugh at him. He then thought about if this were to happen and realized that although that might hurt or feel embarrassing, he could tolerate these scenarios. I then ask children, “What’s the best thing that could happen?” Kids with anxiety almost never think of this! In this case, the boy smiled and said that he could go through his day without tripping. I always follow this line of questioning with, “What’s the most likely thing that will happen?” This boy thought about the question, then admitted that he rarely falls and it was not a likely possibility. It’s important to help kids not only explore the fear, but also measure the likelihood of it occurring. An anxious mind will fixate on the negative and see no other possibilities, even when the situation is not likely to cause the anticipated problems.

These are just a few of many ways that can help your child overcome anxiety. If the worry persists or keeps the child from participating in activities, consider asking for outside help.

Emily Herber is a child and family therapist at the Center for Psychological Services.
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