Top Ten Ways to help Your Anxious Child
When you have a child who suffers from anxiety it can be difficult to know what to do to help. My son Max has autism and anxiety seems to be a major component to his disorder. There are some days which are terribly draining because it seems all we do is deal with his anxieties. The thing is I understand anxiety because I suffer from it myself. But when the shoe is on the other foot and you are in the role of caregiver it is easy to forget empathy and grow impatient. I am going to give you some ways to both help your child as well as how to cope with your own feelings about your child's anxiety. Remember that every child is different as is every parent. What has worked for us may not work for you and your child.
1. Take your child's anxiety seriously. It may sometimes be hard to understand when your child feels anxious about something that you feel is not anxiety provoking. But to your child, it is a serious matter and you need to listen. It doesn't mean you over react or feed into their fears but it also doesn't mean that you diminish what they are going through by telling them, "There's nothing to be afraid of" or in essence to buck up and get over it. What may seem to be a small matter to you may be a huge matter in your child's world. Earn their trust by being respectful of their feelings.
2. Identify the triggers of your child's anxiety. When it seems that you cannot figure out why your child is feeling anxious it can be very useful to figure out any triggers which set off the anxiety response. One way to determine this information is to just ask your child. But if your child is like mine and cannot readily communicate what is bothering them the use of an "ABC" record can be very helpful. Basically an ABC record stands for Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence. Divide up a sheet of paper into three columns. When your child experiences anxiety write down what behaviors they show under the Behaviors column. Then write down anything which preceded the anxiety attack for an antecedent. Also write down things like time of day, if they got enough sleep or any other conditions which might provide clues as to the cause of their behavior. Next, under the consequences write down what happens immediately after they feel anxious. Does anyone do or say anything which may inadvertently keep that anxiety going? Over time you will hopefully begin to see patterns of anything behavioral which makes the anxiety worse or better.
3. Remember that some children will act out when stressed or anxious. Anxiety doesn't always look the same for every child. Some children will begin to act out when they feel stressed or fearful. For example some kids may try to hit or kick other children invading their space because it makes them feel fearful and they are just trying to stop those feelings. My Max has a variety of behaviors he exhibits when stressed including crying, jumping up and down, or engaging in obsessive rituals. It is good to understand that some behaviors are not to push your buttons or for attention but may be the child's way of coping with unbearable stress and anxiety.
4. Your child may have physical ailments related to anxiety. Children are just like adults in that anxiety can manifest with physical suffering. Your child's headaches, stomach pains, or hives may be their body's way of saying that they are very anxious and need help.
5. A team approach is always best to help resolve problems. Your child does not live in a vacuum. Your child interacts with teachers, doctors, maybe therapists and other professionals who are interested in your child's well being. It is a good thing to communicate with all the parties involved with your child's "team." If your child is experiencing anxiety in the classroom, for example, it is helpful to start a "communication log" with your child's teacher to report back and forth about any issues and/or progress you both are seeing. Things work best for your child when everyone involved is on the same page. It is also beneficial to get opinions from the people who see your child in different settings.
6. Diet can play a role in your child's anxiety. What your child eats can contribute to either feelings of well being or discomfort and anxiety. My Max had undetected food allergies for years and this contributed to greater anxiety for him. If a child is not feeling well, they are less able to cope with stress pure and simple. Some foods are metabolized better than others. And some foods or drinks such as those containing caffeine can trigger a hyperactive response in some children. When looking at problems with mood and/or anxiety it is good to look at what biological factors can help to improve the situation. Diet is definitely one of those factors.
7. Find calming and relaxation strategies which help YOUR child. I wrote the word "your" in all capitals for a reason. Not all relaxation methods will work for each individual child. As an example, we had a speech therapist who would turn on this music to calm Max. But every time she turned it on, he grew more anxious. This therapist wrongly assumed that what worked for other children would automatically work for Max. Find those things which have proven to help your child calm down and make a list for future reference for other people who work with your child.
8. Your child can feed off your anxiety. Somehow Max always knows when I suffer from PMS because his anxious behaviors increase. He senses my anxiety and in turn, it makes him vibrate off the walls. It can be particularly difficult when you are a parent who also suffers from anxiety. But it is a good idea to try to tame your anxiety the best way that you can so that your child does not learn to imitate your anxious responses to situations. Being calm helps your child to be calm. Some days I have to give myself a time out so that my mood does not rub off on Max.
9. Have a place where your child can get a break from stress and anxiety. If your child suffers from anxiety it is a good idea to have a place in your home where your child can escape from stress and feel safe. Some children find solace in a bean bag chair or dimly lit room. Have that safe place ready for when things become too overwhelming and they need a break.
10. Seek professional help and support. In some cases you might not be able to cope with your child's anxiety issues on your own. It might be beneficial in that case to seek a child psychologist, behavioral specialist, or even a neurologist to give you some professional insight into how to best help your child.
These are but some ways to help your anxious child. I have barely scratched the surface of things you can do as a parent to help to decrease your child's fears and anxieties. I know this isn't easy. But I want you to know that for every suggestion I give, I have been there. I am in this with you in parenting my own child who suffers from anxiety. We can do this! I would personally love it if the parents here would share their stories and experiences of how to best help your anxious child. Reach out. We are listening!