It’s cliche to say “parenting is the hardest thing you will ever do” - but I am going to say it. I’m not going to lie - I have had some tough days, weeks, and years in my professional life - but nothing compares to raising your child(ren) to be good human beings. I wish I could say I had good role-models, or a parent, I could call to ask for help in particularly sticky situations. I don’t. And maybe you don’t either.
Just as parenting in general is challenging, having an anxious child has presented its own special brand of pain at times. Having anxiety myself - I have learned I have to manage mine on a much higher level than a parent without an anxious child.
Tips to getting closer to where you want to be:
Keep it self-focused. Parent YOURSELF through the situation OUT-LOUD. You have zero control over your child and their response. You can do everything “by the book” and they may still melt down. You can’t go there. You can’t reinforce the idea that we can just all melt-down and get our way. Life doesn’t work that way. It’s hard and ruthless. Let’s grow them to be problem-solvers.
What does this look and sound like? Saying something to the effect of “I’m here with you. You’re safe”.Why does it work? Anxiety is a biological response in the amygdala. The Fight/Flight response is activated but unnecessarily so. Telling yourself and your child “you’re safe” signals to the brain - you got this. No saber-tooth tiger in sight. “I’m okay. I’m safe”.
Take care of the energy. Again, the fight/flight response has been activated. Trying to solve the problem that activated the anxiety is a temporary fix and is really for you - not for them. Teaching them how to self-soothe or take care of their own anxiety from a young age will, ideally, prevent or mitigate future issues.
What does this look and sound like? “Do you want to run or dance around to get rid of your worried (or extra) energy?” When experiencing anxiety, your brain is flooded, or emotionally hijacked, by norepinephrine and cortisol - increasing the heart rate and blood flow to muscles for a fast get-away! To overcome this biological response that is out of your (and your child’s) control - physical movement is effective. The body is primed and ready, why not relieve it?
Address it logically. Anxiousness is a feeling. Albeit valid, not necessarily an accurate representation of reality. We can feel many things in any given situation, but it doesn’t always mean they correctly represent what is actually going on.
What does this look and sound like? “Tell me about it”. Allow yourself and your child to get a clear and accurate picture of what is happening. My 6yo gets anxious when her friends can’t, or don’t want to play. She says things like, “I don’t have any friends”, and becomes tearful and further dissolves into a pile of emotions, believing “no one likes me”, etc. Letting her empty out as best as she can with her words let’s me know her perception on the matter and releases some of her residual mental energy.
Ask them for solutions. Remember, this is theirs to carry. You didn’t wish it on them - they, and you, are biologically wired for it. The earlier you start giving them power over themselves, the easier time they will have as they grow.
What does this look and sound like? “What would you like to tell to your worry? What might your worry say back? Then what?”.Give them a voice - Voice Dialogue is a powerful tool that can lead to feelings of resolution. Hearing it out loud what the parts are saying - may help you and your child realize the anxiety, or worried self, is trying to protect us.
Solutions you can offer. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the flood of neurotransmitters we aren’t able to firmly vocalize what we are experiencing. Children have an even harder time.
What does this look and sound like?
“Let’s draw it”. Get creative! Paints, markers, crayons, colored pencils - no limits here.
“What does it feel like in your body? Where is it? How big is it? '' Takes the power away.
“Match your breaths to mine”. Learn the 4, 7, 8 method.
“What could happen”? Think of endings with anxious, goofy, and realistic outcomes.
“What’s something we could do to help you feel better”? Let them tell YOU what they need.
Ultimately, you are responsible for co-regulating your child’s emotions. Our brains continue to grow and develop until 23-25yo. We have to role-model the behaviors we want our children to develop. Poo-pooing away anxiety will leave a child feeling alienated and they will suffer in silence. Over concerning ourselves with their anxious responses will only increase their anxiety by validating the biological response into believing there really is danger. When we can take a step back and give them ownership - they will learn, and then feel like they have the ability to change it.
Other tips and tricks for parenting an anxious child? Speak to a therapist who specializes in anxiety, research anxiety, practice these tips and tricks on yourself.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns as well as feedback or suggestions. And just because I know even the toughest of the tough need an encouraging word at times- I created a visual tool for you to download, print, and hang where you can see it EVERYDAY.