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The Do’s and Don’ts of Having a Child With Anxiety

Raising a child with anxiety is a new kind of challenge and probably one there isn’t enough written on. So I tried to make a list of things based on things I’ve read and tried in the therapy room. I have also listened to clients, for two decades, talk about things that made their anxiety worse and things that helped. So let’s dig into it.

  1. Do let your child have time to warm up before insisting they engage with new people. Maybe it’s a family dinner, a birthday party, or a meeting of some sort, but give your anxious child time to let the dust settle. This might mean talking for them for a bit because you know their activation level is at a high level.
  2. Don’t ask a lot of questions as soon as your child comes home from their day. Give them time to reflect and process. Just go on about your life giving them emotional space. They will come to you at some point in the evening. Usually it will sound like them suddenly saying, “This girl said this about me” or “My teacher did that.” At that point, quietly listen and ask a question or two.
  3. Do encourage them to go another child’s birthday party, or join a club, or engage in some kind of activity. But don’t force them with a finger shake. You want to sound like a wise guide. “Hey, this might be fun,” then drop it. Let them marinate on the idea. There will be times when you need to insist that they go, but do it with an attitude that says, “it will be just fine, trust me”.
  4. Don’t add unnecessary words and questions to requests. Imagine if you tried to give your cat some medicine and said, “Okay, buddy, this isn’t going to be a big deal but I need you to come here and it’s going to be fine and and and please, just let me pet you and it will be okay.” Your cat will sense something is up. It’s better to just sit the cat on your lap and drop the pill in their mouth. Kids are the same way. Lots of coaxing and asking, “Are you okay? Are you sure you are okay?” ADDS ANXIETY, it doesn’t relieve it and it isn’t sensitive to their need. Communicate certainty.
  5. Do find quieter activities, places to sit, and friendly people for them to attach themselves to or ask for help. Think of people like the school counselor or a trusted kid in their class who could be someone they could lean on. Think study buddies or other quiet kids whose energy matches their energy.
  6. Don’t take their anxiety personally. I’ve heard of parents who said things like, “Well, okay then!” with a huff when their child didn’t talk to them first thing in the morning. This made their anxiety worse because the parent was confusing disrespect with the need to orient and wake up.
  7. Do recognize that anxious people are the kind that take in a lot of information around them through books and other media. So when they are attempting to learn something, they are looking at so much information they get overwhelmed. Slow things down and break things into chunks for them to help. They may think a homework assignment will take four hours when it takes 40 minutes.
  8. Don’t let them miss school or get too far behind on their assignments. Since anxious people tend to see mountains instead of hills, even missing a couple days of school might send them into major dysregulation. School can actually be very helpful for anxious people since they tend to be smart, like learning and also need connection with other people to help them regulate.
  9. Do remember that anxious people have higher levels of activation in their brains than non anxious people. For this reason, giving them some quiet is helpful so that they can concentrate and tune in. With other kids, ones with low activation, you might want to spice things up to help them pay attention. With high anxiety kids, you want to remember that silence is actually the highest vibration.
  10. Don’t make them hug relatives if they feel uncomfortable doing so.
  11. Do try being a wise guide rather than an advice giver or lecturer. Anxious people are incredibly sensitive to equitability and even small hints at what might be seen as disrespect. Long lectures will definitely make them shut down and tune out.
  12. Don’t compare them to extraverted or less anxious kids. Let them have one good, real friend rather than encouraging them to have several friends. They don’t need to be the best gymnast or basketball player or invited to every party with the popular kids. They would probably hate those things anyway!
  13. Do sit with them in a fun place if they are finding it hard to study or complete homework. A coffee shop? A bookstore? Even the car can be a place that helps. How can you help make the mountain of work seem more like just a little hill to climb? Can you help them make flashcards? Could you read the questions on the worksheet? Can you collaborate with them?
  14. Don’t make them be the one to talk to adults like the doctor or the new tutor you hired or the waitress at the restaurant unless they show an interest in doing so. You’ve been alive decades talking to grown ups. They have only learned what a doctor is within the last couple of years. You can model assertiveness for them and again, be the wise guide, rather than the one insisting they talk.
  15. Do let them have some avoidance strategies when they get overwhelmed. Maybe playing with play-doh or a figit toy that pops or an app on their phone. Maybe they need to go away for a while, mentally, in order to be able to come back.
  16. Finally, do have fun with them, find out what kinds of books and videos they like. Listen without interrupting when they finally do engage with you. Don’t feel like you have to fix their problem. Keep your advice small and your heart open wide.

Happy 2023!

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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