This article first appeared in the February, 2010 Brown University CABL supplement.
Parenting an anxious child can often feel like walking on egg shells. Seeing your child so stressed, you don’t know what will put him over the edge. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, parents often hold back or reassure, but then when things don’t improve, frustration wins out and parents often respond with anger. Though parents wish they could take away the pain and struggle, they usually know in their heart that without addressing the problem, things will only get worse.
Parents are in the best position to teach their children about anxiety, because a parent’s reaction in a situation is like a fork in the road. It can help a child see that there is a way out, that things aren’t as scary as their anxious thoughts are making them feel, while, on the other hand, responding with your own fears to your child’s behavior can inadvertently reinforce fears by lending credibility to them.
By no fault of his own, a child’s anxiety reverberates throughout the family system. From the emotional burden of deflecting the stress to the practical limitations of being unable to get a good night’s sleep, go on a vacation or on family outings, or get to school on time, siblings of an anxious child have to absorb some of the fallout.
Parents can be caught in the middle. On the one hand, they fully understand and can identify with the siblings’ complaints-“it’s not fair; why can’t we go to the mall — just because she’s going to freak out?” or “you spend all of your time with him at night just because he’s scared — what about me?” On the other hand, parents are distressed when a sibling utters harsh words-“I hate him; he’s a weirdo; he’s just trying to get away with things.”
A parent’s task is two-fold; first, to set safety limits — no name calling, no teasing, — and second, to make sure that the sibling is validated for these feelings of frustration. Parents can validate the feelings without condoning the inappropriate expression of those feelings. It is important to correct the sibling’s perception that a child is somehow enjoying or benefiting from anxiety and replace this perception with a more accurate understanding of the no-fault nature of anxiety. Explaining that when it comes to siblings, fair doesn’t mean equal and planning special time for siblings either with you or with available friends or relatives will help.
The more you learn about how anxiety works, you can integrate that information into what you already understand about your child and be effective in keeping the fine balance between helping your child feel secure and helping him or her overcome anxiety. Like most things in life learning anxiety management skills will be most successful when you work at it step by step, practice frequently, and celebrate successes.
It’s important that you have the same expectations of your anxious child that you would of another child (to go to birthday parties, make decisions, talk to adults). However, understand that the pace will need to be slower and there is a process involved in meeting this end goal. You can help your child break down big tasks into smaller steps that your child can accomplish (first go to the party with your child and agree to stay as long as your child is interacting with others, next time stay for the first half-hour). You can help role-play or act out possible ways your child could handle a difficult situation. Saying it out loud makes kids more confident and more likely to try the strategy when your child is alone.
It’s important to praise your child for facing challenges, trying something new or exhibiting brave behavior. Some children like big loud exuberant praise, while others like a quiet pat on the back. There is a lot you can do to help build your child’s competence. Search to find avenues where your child can show he is good at something (music, art, sports). Also be sure your child has jobs around the house that show your child is contributing to the family.
While tempting, it is best not to take over or do it for your child. While this might help your child feel better right now, the message your child is getting is that you don’t believe your child can do it. Then your child will start to think the same way about him/herself. Try not to get caught continually reassuring your child that everything will be okay. Teach your child to answer his/ her own questions and provide the reassurance him/herself. You can model how you think through and respond to your child’s questions.
It is okay to let your child experience some anxiety. Your child needs to know that anxiety is not dangerous but something your child can cope with. You can let your child know all feelings are okay and it is all right to say what you feel. Anxious children sometimes have a hard time expressing strong emotions like anger or sadness because they are afraid people will be angry with them. It’s okay to take time for yourself even if your child wants to be with you at all times. You are modeling for your child that everyone needs some time to themselves.
Try to keep your fears to yourself and as best you can present a positive or at least neutral description of a situation. Let them know that it is safe to explore. It is not helpful to laugh or minimize your child’s fear. But humor does help one deal with the world, so show your child how to laugh at life’s absurdities and mistakes.
It is important to work with your spouse to have an agreed-upon way of handling your child’s anxiety that you both feel comfortable with. It is very important that one parent not be “too easy” because the other parent “pushes your child too much.” This is very confusing for your child, who does not know whom to count on.
Don’t confuse anxiety with other types of inappropriate behavior. It is very important to set both expectations and have limits and consequences for inappropriate behavior. Parents who have reasonable expectations of their children and clear and consistent limits and consequences for behavior along with love and acceptance have the most competent, self-confident, and happy children.
Source: Worrywisekids.org / Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety