by Sandra Pimentel
From starting school to fearing rejection by friends, anxiety and worry are expected components of child development. We all worry from time to time, and kids are no different. Teaching children coping skills to deal with their stressors and worries is like teaching other skills. How do we teach dental hygiene or how to read? We can start by creating a plan, modeling the steps by showing them and practicing the task together, and gradually children will practice the technique independently.
How do we teach children to cope? We do so with intention and on purpose. Here are some suggestions for helping kids cope with anxiety:
Do validate. While a parent’s instinct may be to jump in and solve the problem, first take a moment to validate that certain situations or experiences are indeed scary. Helping kids make sense of their emotions includes helping them feel them. Anxiety is normal – it’s even good for you. It may help to start out by saying things like: “I can see why that situation makes you nervous. Sometimes I get nervous when I have to… (e.g., meet a new person, speak in front of an audience, try something new).”
Don’t offer general advice statements. Although it’s important to validate and empathize when a child is feeling anxious, offering general advice statements such as “Don’t worry” or “You’ll be fine” may feel invalidating or even dismissive. Learning to cope with anxiety includes helping kids learn how to get specific about their experiences. Try: “It sounds like you’re pretty worried about failing this upcoming math test, and I know how important it is to you. Let’s see if we can come up with a plan…”
Do work with kids to understand the problem. Fear and anxiety are emotional responses to threat and perceptions of danger. Our brains naturally react to environments we perceive as dangerous. When we sense “danger” or “threat,” our bodies get activated to fight, flee or freeze. When we feel anxious, it’s a signal that there is perceived threat; it is a signal to act. Before we can problem solve, we must understand the problem. Anxiety and stress include feelings, thoughts and behaviors; in turn, problem solving includes helping kids learn how to identify and understand that how they think is related to how they feel and determines their actions:. Try: “What’s the worst that can happen if you take that test? What will happen if you don’t take the test?”
Do practice problem-solving/coping. Teaching kids to cope with anxiety, stress or worry includes teaching them to problem solve. Helping kids learn how to identify and understand the problem is key. When dealing with stress or anxiety, kids can learn to identify a problem, come up with a plan and execute the plan. Think about how often we have to utilize this sequence in our daily lives. When kids feel anxious, they may have trouble seeing options. Teach kids to recognize their anxious thoughts and self-validate, and also practice labeling feelings, thoughts and behaviors, or avoidance:
- “When you feel nervous, what does your body feel like?”
- “Do you get shaky? Or jumpy? When you have worries, do you feel like you have butterflies in your stomach?”
- “It sounds like you’re worried that it will be a disaster? What do you think will happen?”
- “What are the chances that you will fail the math test? What is the worst that can happen if you do fail?”
For anxious bodily reactions:
- “If your body is feeling anxious, slow down and take some deep breaths.”
And then team up and brainstorm some things they can do:
- “What can you do to prepare for the oral report in front of your class? You can create a slide presentation or use flash cards. We can practice in advance at home. You can ask the teacher for help.”
Don’t encourage avoidance. While avoiding a situation that makes us nervous is an option for temporary relief, it does not work very well and serves to keep anxiety going in the long term. Avoidance deprives kids of potentially learning that outcomes are not always as bad as we predict and discourages them from practicing coping skills. Rather, it’s helpful to coach kids to approach scary situations gradually and encourage them to approach, rather than avoid.
For many children and adolescents, anxiety may become so severe that it interferes with healthy development. Some potential red flags include:
- Chronic stomach pains or physical symptoms when worried.
- Frequent requests to leave and/or be picked up from school, or multiple trips to the school nurse.
- Withdrawal from peers or social activities (e.g., clubs, parties, teams).
- Excessive clinginess and/or reassurance-seeking questions that are asked repeatedly.
- Sleep or eating disturbances.
For these children, parents may consider further evaluation. Fortunately, anxiety disorders are treatable.