5 Tips to Help Calm Your Anxious Child
Does your little girl or guy worry about everything? Here’s how to help.
My son is a worrier. What if the restaurant doesn’t have his favorite dish? What if Octonauts stop playing on TV? What if the tower he spent an hour crafting falls? What if the egg breaks? What if, what if, what if…?
Contrary to popular belief, worry is not all bad. In fact, evolutionary psychologists suggest that worry is a necessary adaptation to ensure our survival. Makes sense—if a lion is sniffing around the cave, it’s a good idea to worry about what it might do and get out of Dodge before becoming dinner.
But if worry is keeping your child from enjoying life and tackling new experiences, here are ways you can help.
Do some prep work to ease his mind.
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One of the main factors that fuels a child’s anxiety is a fear of the unknown. Some kids can go with the flow and accept what life throws at them, while others have a harder time adjusting. The unknown seems like a scary monster looming in the distance. “Sit down with your child before any event and discuss what will happen,” suggests Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. “Be specific and give details.” Say something like “At the party, we'll go in and we'll just sit on the side and look at everything. I wonder what we'll see—what do you think? Balloons? Presents?” This way, the unknown isn’t quite so mysterious and scary.
Don’t minimize her worries.
When your kid confesses her fears, your instinct may be to try to soothe her with an upbeat platitude: “Don’t worry. It will be fine!” But that actually minimizes her feelings without giving her tools for handling her worries, says Hendrikson. Instead, ask questions so you can create a coping plan together. “What if you get sick at summer camp? Well, let's think about that. If you got sick at summer camp, what would be a good thing to do? Who would you tell? Where would you go?”
Approach the scary thing in small steps.
Anxiety isn’t like a Band-Aid. Ripping it off in one fell swoop will likely backfire. If your child is afraid of dogs, for example, the worst thing you can do is let a yapping beagle jump on him. Instead, take baby steps to address the fear. First look at pictures of dogs in a book, then watch a video of a friendly dog, then check out some dogs in the park from afar. After a while, introduce him to a very mellow dog who doesn’t jump or bark much. Don’t force it: Give your child space to adjust and approach the dog on his own. “Anxiety comes from kids thinking that A, things will be worse than they actually are, and B, they can't handle it. Set him up for success by encouraging him to try age-appropriate challenges that stretch him a little,” says Hendriksen.
Break the fixation by using distraction.
If you’re afraid of spiders, talking constantly about spiders will only stoke the fear by blowing it way out of proportion. So if you notice your child fixating on what scares him, try distraction to break the loop. “Hey did you see that squirrel burying a nut in the backyard? It’s so cool!” This works particularly well on younger children.
Practice slow breathing for stressful situations.
Of course, no matter how much preparation you do, life can throw a curveballs. If your child finds himself in a stressful situation that triggers his anxiety, Hendriksen suggests a series of slow breaths to calm down. “I tell my kids ‘smell the flower, blow out the candle.’ That is, inhale slowly through the nose, and exhale slowly through the mouth.” Focusing on his breath (instead of on the stress) will allow your child to quell the anxiety and get his bearings.