If you read my previous blog, 5 Signs Your Child May Be Anxious, you might be wondering what to do if you are noticing those signs. Here are 6 ways that you can help your anxious child.
Talk to your child.
Yes, this seems simple and obvious, but if you can catch your anxious child at the right time–in the car, right before bed, etc., they may share things that you didn’t realize. Pick a time when you are both screen free and realize that this might be one of several conversations to see what’s going on. Tell them that some of the things happening lately make you think they might be feeling pretty anxious or uncomfortable and that you want them to know that they can share with you. Remind them that you want them to live their best life. You are not expected to be a mind reader. Start observing and jotting down notes. This can help you decide if these are more isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern.
Kids are often ashamed of their anxiety/OCD and will often try to hide it from those around them if possible. It’s important as a parent that you let your child know that it’s ok to talk to you about what is bothering them–that a lot of people deal with this and even though it might feel weird, it’s actually quite common. Let them know if they talk to you about what is troubling them you might be able to help them or find someone who can.
Challenge your child in gradual ways.
Teach your anxious child that they are able to handle hard things. It’s difficult to see your child struggle, so we often do things for them to make their lives easier. Sometimes this makes sense but other times we are preventing them from learning how to handle a struggle and come out on the other side feeling more capable. Guide your child instead of doing things (like their science project, paper) for them.There might be tears. Be prepared to deal with those and not swoop in to save the day. You can pick daily or weekly challenges. Say to your child, “let’s go to the store and have you practice buying the bread yourself,” or have them ask the store employee where something is located. Tell them you will be nearby but that you believe they can do it on their own. Give them a lot of praise after they complete the challenge. Sometimes even a small reward like a piece of candy or 5 extra minutes of screen time might be helpful.
Teach your anxious child coping strategies.
This will help your child with what to do when they feel anxious in their bodies. Here are some ideas:
Deep breathing: Make sure they are breathing into their tummies not their chests. Their belly should go out when they breathe in and back down when they breathe out. (Sometimes doing it lying down in bed with a toy or stuffed animal on top of their belly can help them see how their belly goes up and down as they breathe.) Breathe in through the nose for 3-4 seconds and out through the mouth for 5-6 seconds. (You want the exhale to be longer than the inhale.) You can tell them to imagine they are smelling soup and then lightly blowing on it to cool the soup.
Progressive muscle relaxation: Have them lie down and tense and relax different muscle groups. They can imagine the difference between uncooked and cooked spaghetti.
Physical exercise: Run around the house orup and down the stairs, do jumping jacks, etc.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise: Have them list out 5 things they see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they hear, 2 things they smell and 1 thing they taste.
Have your child practice using these strategies when they are calm first so they can get used to doing them when they are not anxious, and then they will be more able to use them in a stressful situation. Try doing them together before dinner or at bedtime (except maybe thephysical exercise strategy).
Make it a game.
See who can catch the most repetitive questions, apologies, etc., and see who wins. Maybe the winner gets to choose a movie or what’s for dinner. After you get a baseline of how much these behaviors are happening; together you can work to set a limit about how often they can say or ask you certain things and how often you will respond (make the limit reasonable–for instance if they are doing it 20 times, set the limit at 18 not 5). Remind them that they are capable and can handle the discomfort of this even though it’s hard. You know they can do this.
This may make some kids upset at first if you don’t answer their questions but in the long run will help them to reduce their compulsions–if you stick with it. This is where you as a parent have to go against that urge to make your child feel better in the short term so that they can succeed in the long term. Again, it’s hard to see your child struggle and so it can be easy to just give in and answer the question or reassure them, but we are going for long term benefit.
Educate your child on when to apologize and when it is not necessary.
Oftentimes people apologize when really they are trying to express something else. For instance, if you bump into someone, instead of saying I’m sorry, say excuse me. If you are late, instead of saying I’m sorry, say thank you so much for waiting for me (and perhaps a way you can remedy your lateness in the future, e.g., I’m going to leave 10 minutes earlier next week). If you are asking someone for something, instead of saying I’m sorry to bother you, say thank you so much for your time. Then work together to start noticing when your anxious child apologizes and come up with an alternative in the moment.
Have your child practice giving you their opinion on things.
Pick a topic in the news or a celebrity or look up a writing prompt topic (here is a great resource of writing prompts for kids) and talk about it aloud. Work to have them be able to voice more and more difficult or possibly unpopular opinions. Be careful not to tell them they are wrong or shame them, especially if they have a different opinion fromyou, as this can reinforce to them why they should just go along with everything. You can also start asking them outlandish questions or making ridiculous requests to have them practice saying no- if this is something they struggle with.
If your child won’t listen to you (shocking!), they may do better with listening to a mental health professional. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a free consultation.