The following is Part 1 of a 5-Part series on addressing anxiety in children and young people.
Anxiety in children can be complex. Several factors often cause children to experience abnormally high feelings of being upset or unsettled about life. Horrible feelings in one’s chest, throat, or stomach then radiate to the face, arms and legs. It’s a terrible feeling to be continually afraid. Our hearts go out to children who suffer from anxiety. There are many good things that you can do to help.
Parents are often encouraged to look for ways to create stability for a child’s emotions. Keep a regular routine, engage in developmentally-appropriate conversations about bad things that happen in life, restrict input from the news, curb social media for young people, offer generous helpings of comfort, and be careful about displaying your own emotional challenges. These types of ideas work best when the anxiety is situational, in response to a family or community crisis. In fact, these suggestions are good for any family at any time. They’re simply good advice for encouraging emotional health in children.
Some children, however, need more. They seem predisposed to feelings of anxiety. Continual fears and feeling upset can dominate a child’s lifestyle. Kids can develop tendencies to process the world as dangerous, to imagine harm, and feel a lack of control. Again, further recommendations from experts are often helpful. Encourage kids to journal, engage in regular exercise, and teach them to distract themselves from their thoughts. These are good responses for children who experience patterns of anxiety.
Not knowing what else to do, some parents engage in two additional quick solutions. Sometimes these work but not usually. It’s important to discuss them however, because they’re so common and, if they aren’t working, can make the problem worse.
Simple Solution #1: Stop Being Anxious
Sometimes children start down a path of anxiety and begin acting out. When parents see the cycle starting to form, they sometimes call attention to it and tell the child to stop. The reason this sometimes works is because it draws attention to the choices a child is making and calls them to account.
Of course, sometimes parents try to use authority in an attempt to prevent the spread of the anxious feelings to themselves. People are emotionally connected and when one person starts to increase their display of emotions, other people start to feel that same emotion as well.
Some children respond well to parental authority in times of emotional stress. It gives them the feeling that someone actually is in control here and the instruction to stop can create a calming influence. When used, this approach works best when the parent is calm in order to reduce anxious energy rather than escalate it with a volume or tone of voice.
Although some children might respond well to this approach, others react to it. They internalize the emotion or feel shame for their feelings. Some children might be able to simply “turn it off” or “cut it out,” but others need help processing what’s going on inside.
To know whether this approach is helpful, you’ll need to know your child. In addition, be careful that you don’t use your own anxiety to try to manage your child’s feelings. Often children need deeper solutions to address their anxiety. Those deeper solutions are discussed in this series of articles and focus on the heart. Instead of just allowing the heart to run wildly off course, children must be equipped to develop internal structures to manage their anxiety, channel the energy, and let go of the patterns that make them miserable.
Simple Solution #2: Argue With Children About Reality
Sometimes parents can talk children out of anxiety by using logic and sharing information about how reality is different from their fears. This can work well for children who experience rational fears and just need an education. A young child might be afraid of a public restroom because the toilets make a loud noise. An elementary age child might be afraid of dogs, or a teen might be paralyzed with the fear of giving an oral report in school. Desensitizing a child through gradual steps of exposure or positive teaching might be the perfect solution.
Teaching children about life and how it works can help children feel less afraid. Unfortunately, conversations can turn into arguments when the exchange goes back and forth with reasons, examples, exceptions, and probabilities. Some children respond well to this back-and-forth exchange, but others just become more entrenched in their concerns. It’s as if the discussion contributes to the anxiety and gives more attention to the fears.
It’s important, therefore, to know your child and to recognize the danger signs. Anxiety can feed off dialogue. This is one of those times when parental talking becomes misplaced. Parents know that they should be engaging more with their kids, but sometimes the discussions or the process of dialogue becomes unproductive.
Real Fear or Manipulation
A child may be tempted to use fear to control a situation, get out of responsibility, or gain attention. How do you, as a caregiver, know when your child is taking advantage of the situation? When a child has a legitimate fear and you try unsuccessfully to help them cope, it can create a feeling of helplessness in you as a parent. You then feel a loss of control and can feel like the victim in the situation. If you have any inclination that your child might be taking advantage, you can become hypersensitive to feelings of being manipulated.
No one wants to be taken advantage of, and what you feel in that moment is important. The discomfort you feel might be that God-given radar that tells you that your child has crossed the line. Or, maybe you need to move into even more of a caring role. You may have to experiment with this a bit to determine whether a child’s demandingness is fear-driven or just fear-related. Setting clear boundaries might just be the parenting strategy that prevents manipulation from developing.
Be careful though, to be on the lookout for the real fears, even if they are small and underlie a behavior problem. If you can’t tell whether the current situation is manipulation or genuine fear, it’s usually best to err on the side of comfort. One of the deep needs in a child’s heart, especially when experiencing fears, is the gentle, comfort of a parent. Using empathy, listening, and communicating through touch can help ease a fear. Your presence can be a settling influence for a child who is experiencing anxiety.
When children experience significant issues with anxiety that preoccupy their lives, they need deeper solutions. A multi-faceted approach is best and requires more tools and strategies. Keep in mind that you, as a parent, are the best therapist for your child if you have a good plan. In this series of articles you will learn several tools and techniques.
You’ll see, for example, how spiritual resources are a huge source of emotional strength. In the coming articles you’ll learn some new techniques like the Suitcase Idea- Help for Anxiety part 3 and how to teach your child to jump tracks. God has also provided two secret weapons that your child can learn to use. In challenging situations where a child has lingering and oppressing anxiety, we provide you with seven parenting tools to help you tailor a specific approach to change for your child. We’ll take an inside look at the heart and how God made it. A heart-based approach to anxiety can bring breakthroughs where strongholds currently exist.
Keep in mind that the deepest solutions require new patterns within the heart as it spins in predictable fashion or out of control. Those new patterns often require practice sessions, to train a child to both think and act differently. Along with the psalmist children can pray, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you O LORD my rock and my redeemer. “ (Psalm 19:11).
Be watching for new articles to come. If you’d like personalized guidance to help you parent a child with anxiety, you might consider the Biblical Parenting Coaching Program. A trained coach can walk alongside you for eight remarkable weeks to help you address deep-seated issues in your child’s life. Learn more here.