By Vicki Little
If there is one thing I have learned by being the mom of an extremely anxious child, it is how to make her even MORE anxious. It should be simple to help her, considering that I deal with anxiety myself. The problem is, that when you aren’t the one who is currently anxious you have a hard time understanding why the other person is so upset. After all, you can clearly see that they are fretting about something that is very unlikely to happen. But to them, not only can the worst happen, but they are positive that it will happen. And if you have ever tried to calm an anxious child, you know how easy it is to make him or her even more upset. So how do you calm a child down? It’s not as hard as it may seem if you’re willing to step into their shoes.
1) Understand how debilitating it truly is for them. Sometimes the reasons your child feels anxious may appear small to you, and sometimes it can be extremely frustrating when you can’t calm your child down. But to them, anxiety is an extremely large problem that is consuming them. Clark Goldstein, PhD suggests that rather than downplay what they are feeling, you can “express confidence that she’s going to be okay, she will be able to manage it, and that, as she faces her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives her confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask her to do something she can’t handle.”
2) Help them create calming strategies to use when they are anxious. Do a body check. Talk about it. Breathe calm in and anxiety out. Write it out and imagine the best scenario — whatever works for your child. Once the anxiety starts, it can quickly become a runaway train on which your child feels trapped. You are teaching your child to remove themselves from the moment for a second, until they calm down and look at the situation rationally — to step off that runaway train.
3) Focus on managing the anxiety instead of overcoming it. Ideally we would help our children overcome anxiety and feel completely calm and confident when they walk into a potentially stressful situation. However, in your child’s eyes, not being anxious doesn’t seem like an option. And to some kids, they can start becoming even more anxious because they feel they are letting you down because they can’t calm themselves. Goldstein explains that the best thing to do is work through the possible outcomes with your child, as well as the possible solutions. If your child is terrified you won’t pick him or her up from school, make a plan. Maybe they will stay with their teacher and call you from the office phone. Don’t jump in with the answers right away, guide your child by saying something like, “well, if I am late, what can you do?”
4) Be a coach, not a doctor. This one is hard, because when our children are upset, we want to solve the problem. But if you fix it all the time, they will never learn to manage their anxiety on their own. As they grow older, you won’t be with them all the time, and they will need to figure it out. So instead of telling them which calming technique to use or supplying them with reasons not to be anxious, gently guide them into coming up with these things on their own. Help them build up a reservoir of calming techniques from which they can choose when they are feeling upset or anxious.
Vicki Little is a work-at-home mom with two children. A Colorado native, she spends her time writing, sitting in the bleachers for her daughter’s gymnastics, and engaging in spirited debates with her son. In her free time…well, she is still waiting for some of that.
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