Whether it’s starting school or being left alone with a babysitter that strikes fear in your child, anxiety can take a toll on both kids and parents. Anxiety is extremely common in kids and will often start showing up around the age of three or four. Although most kids will never get a diagnosis, one in 10 will experience the kind of distressing, life-interfering worry that qualifies as an anxiety disorder, says John Walker, a professor of clinical health psychology at the University of Manitoba and co-developer of a web-based program called Coaching for Confidence, which helps parents deal with anxiety in their kids. The good news is, psychologists have several strategies that you can use at home to help anxious kids.
1. Give anxiety a name
Though our worries can be very upsetting, anxiety is a normal emotion and something we should talk about with kids. “Anxiety can be helpful; it’s just when it becomes disproportionate to the fear that it becomes a problem,” says Susan MacKenzie, psychologist and medical head of Child, Youth and Family Service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. She recommends helping your child learn to identify her feelings as anxiety. “By giving it that name, you’re helping kids recognize that they’re not the only one experiencing it,” she says. Try using a book to help start the conversation. MacKenzie recommends the Scaredy Squirrel series by Mélanie Watt, in which a friendly but timid squirrel tackles his different fears, from what lurks in the dark to making new friends.
2. Face those fears one step at a time
Walker says facing fears is the most powerful way of overcoming any anxiety—and it’s not as scary as it sounds. “The thing that keeps anxiety going, more than anything else, is avoidance,” he says. Whether your child is afraid of dogs or worried about reading aloud at school, chances are he tries to avoid those things at all costs. The problem, Walker explains, is that “if you’re avoiding things because of anxiety, you don’t have the opportunity to learn how to cope.” Breaking it down into small steps can help make facing the fear easier. If he has separation anxiety and has a hard time being left with a babysitter, try getting the babysitter to come while you’re home, so your kid can get comfortable with the person. After a few visits, head out for a short walk while the babysitter is there, gradually building your way up to longer stays. Walker says practice is key to helping kids learn the skills to cope with situations that make them anxious.
3. Practice deep breathing together
Working on deep breathing during calm times can help establish the relaxation technique and make it easier for your kid to use it during stressful times. “When you get anxious, your heart rate tends to increase and your breathing will become more shallow,” MacKenzie explains. That shallow breathing means less oxygen is getting to the muscles and brain, which increases panic. “By slowing everything down with the deep breathing, we’ll also slow down the heart rate and feel more physically calm,” says MacKenzie. To help you get started, find a mindfulness book, like Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and their Parents) by Eline Snel, which helps kids picture themselves as frogs, taking big belly-filling breaths.
4. Let her solve the problem
If your little worrier is constantly asking you scary “what ifs”—What if there was a fire at our house? What if you forget to pick me up from school?—your first reaction might be to reassure her that it will never happen and that everything will be OK. But Walker says it’s a better idea to put the question back to her: What if that did happen? What would you do? “It turns out, when people are worriers, if you keep on giving reassurance day after day, it’s the reassurance that’s keeping the worry going,” says Walker. Asking your kid to answer her own question helps her learn to problem-solve, which can make her more confident and gives her the tools to work through future problems. If your child doesn’t know what to do—how to evacuate the house in case of fire, or how to get to the school office and ask them to call you if you’re not there at the end of the day—walk her through those situations. It’s a sort of hypothetical way to help her face her fears, and she’ll realize those scary situations are in fact manageable.
5. Do a dry run
We know that practice makes perfect so, whenever possible, help your child practice doing the things that he is anticipating with anxiety. For example, if your child is afraid to start school, it’s helpful to talk about his fears, but you can also take him to the school before September and play in the playground together, or even ask the teacher for a classroom tour, so your kid can sit in a desk and see what class will be like. “Talking about something is useful, but physically practising it is even more effective,” says Walker. And the more kids can practise the things that scare them, the more comfortable they’ll be.
6. Offer a fun reward
Getting a child to do something she naturally wants to avoid can be a challenge, but it’s key to overcoming anxiety. A 2013 study from the Mayo Clinic found that children who avoid scary situations are likely to have anxiety. Walker says it’s OK to use rewards to motivate your kid to face those nerve-racking situations. “When they do something difficult, set up a situation where there is a reward afterward,” he says. “It helps to have rewards that are small, are used up quickly and are activities with parents.” He explains that kids are especially motivated by spending time with parents. One idea? After your child does a scary presentation at school, make a pizza dinner together as a family.