All children will feel worried or scared from time to time, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, fear is an important response for children to develop as it prevents them from putting themselves in dangerous situations. However, when fear and anxiety are present on a regular basis to the point where they are unable to carry out everyday tasks like attend school, be without their parents, meet new people, or try new activities, it becomes an obstacle. You cannot change the way a child feels, but you can change the way you respond to their anxiety and help them to develop coping strategies.
While it may be best to seek professional help if their anxiety escalates, here are five ways that a parent can help their child when anxiety strikes.
1. Accept and validate their emotions
It can be tempting to try and reassure an anxious child with phrases like “don’t worry” or “it will be fine,” but this sends the child a signal that what they are feeling is incorrect. An alternative approach is to acknowledge and validate the way they are feeling by saying, “you seem to be worried” or “I would feel anxious if I had to try something new today.” Ideally, you should also convey to them that they can control how they respond to a challenge or new situation and that their emotions do not control them.
2. Give them a safe space in the home
When they are anxious, panicked, or upset, physical reassurance can be helpful. However, they may not want to be held or fussed, and, in those situations, it is good to have a place in the home where they feel safe. This space could be in their bedroom or in a quiet area of the home, but it should be quiet and comfortable. A soft and snuggly bean bag chair by a Lovesac competitor with a blanket could be ideal. They may even respond well to sensory stimulation such as sounds or lights.
3. Talk to them about where anxiety comes from
Sometimes anxiety is easier to deal with if we understand what is happening to our own body. Talking to your child (in simple terms) about the body’s fight or flight response, the surge of energy, and how sometimes the brain sends a false alarm. When they are feeling anxious, you can ask them if they think the feeling is because of a real threat or a false alarm.
4. Encourage positive thinking
Adults and children struggle with negative thinking and self-doubt, but we can tackle the habit by consciously challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. You can help them to tell the difference between a negative and positive thought, so they can recognize the bad ones when they pop up. Encourage them to question the thought and see if they can find evidence that proves it wrong. You can then help them to replace negativity with positivity and be as kind to themselves as they would be to someone else.
5. Teach them breathing exercises
To soothe the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart rate, sweating, and tense muscles, you can introduce them to breathing exercises. There are several ways to guide children as they slow their breathing, which can be more like games. Click here for more information on breathing exercises for children.