How Parents Can Help Anxious Children

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in children. The rates of anxious children have been growing dramatically; in 2021, a meta-analysis found that 20.5% of children worldwide have symptoms of anxiety. It is very normal for children to have fears that seem irrational or out of proportion to the danger actually posed, such as being afraid of the dark or worried about parents leaving. However, most children seem to outgrow these fears with age and/or the fears do not interfere with the child’s ability to make friends, go to school, sleep, or engage in other activities. Parents should be concerned if the fear or anxiety does not seem typical for their age or if it starts to interfere with important activities for your child, such as sleep, school, or important family activities.

Children with anxiety may show some of the following symptoms:

  • Complaining of stomach or head problems
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Seeming overly tired or on edge
  • Excessive worrying
  • Avoiding certain things or activities
  • Irritability or being more prone to anger

It is also important to note that anxiety can look different in children than in adults. For children, it is common that anxiety involves physical complaints (stomachache, headache or being tired or unable to sleep) or looks more like irritability and anger rather than nervousness. Young children also may not be able to describe their anxious thoughts or even accept that their thoughts are irrational or unreasonable. Older children may know their thoughts are unreasonable but not be able to control them or still feel anxious.

Research finds that parents may play a clear role in helping their child to cope with anxiety. In fact, a recent study found that training parents in effective ways to manage their child’s anxiety was just as effective in reducing anxiety symptoms as direct child therapy. So what can you do to help your anxious child, according to research?

1. Explain what anxiety is and take away the shame. Explain to your child that there is nothing wrong with them and that anxiety itself is not “bad”— anxiety is there to protect them. You can describe their brain as being more likely to have “false alarms” meaning their brain is telling them there is danger when really they are safe. Explain that this happens to everyone and maybe even give an example of when it happened to you as a child or an adult.

2. Validate and empathize with anxiety. At the same time, parents also do not want to ignore or invalidate their child’s anxiety. They should acknowledge that the child’s anxiety is “real” and is difficult for them, even if it seems irrational to the parent. For example: “I can tell that was really scary for you.”

3. Encourage children to face their fears. After acknowledging and empathizing with the child’s anxiety, parents should then encourage them to gradually and gently face their fears. Parents should work with their children to take baby steps to face their fears. For example: “This really makes you feel nervous but I know you can handle it.”

4. Praise any brave behavior. When children successfully face their fears or even when they take a “baby step” toward facing their fears, parents should give children a lot of praise and positive attention. When doing this, parents should acknowledge that the child was anxious and that it was very difficult but they did it anyway, rather than invalidating their experience with something like “See, that wasn’t so bad!”

5. Help your child learn to tolerate uncertainty. Many children and adults with anxiety will try to avoid anxiety by reducing uncertainty in their environment. Help your child to face uncertainty and learn to tolerate uncertainty by gradually exposing them to more uncertainty in their environment. This could include not answering repetitive questions, packing them a slightly different snack every day, trying out new activities even if they are nervous, driving a different way to school or changing the order of a routine.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *