How to Parent an Anxious Child When You’re Anxious Too
by Jordan Rosenfeld
Photograph by Twenty20
every event or project on my plate, I spend hours, if not days, weeks or
months, chewing over the details again and again. I make lists. I configure
plans. I plan outfits and snacks. If travel is involved, I run directions and
miles, scenarios and traffic nightmares until my neck muscles are permanently
knotted below my ears and my breath is tight in my chest.
I am an anxious
person, and it is probably no surprise that I have an anxious child. Parenting an anxious child when you are an
anxious parent comes with exponential new degrees of complication I never could
have dreamed of before becoming a mom.
to Dr. Jennifer Jipson, an educational advisory board member of The Goddard School and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Child Development at California Polytechnic State University,, “Many studies show a familial
component to anxiety issues, so situations in which both parents and children
are prone to anxiety are common.”
plays out each week in myriad ways, but as an example, even though my third-grader had an entire week to turn in his homework, his anxious mind took one
look at the packet on Monday and got overwhelmed.
“I’ll never get all of
this done,” he cried, facedown on the kitchen table. “I’ll never have time to
play with Daddy or see my friends.”
If they could just stop worrying, or
calm down, they would have.
own anxious thoughts followed like a toxic algae bloom. If we don’t get his homework
done, he’ll learn bad habits, I’ll spend his teen years fighting him, and he’ll
never get into college, oh my god.
“It’s going to be fine,” I said instead. “Just take
it one page at a time.”
son began to cry and moan, and I knew that I’d blown it.
Clancy, a Minnesota-based therapist, suggests this is not a helpful way to
approach an anxious child. “I often hear usually well-meaning parents say
things like ‘Don’t worry about it,’ or ‘Calm down’ because they don’t know what
else to say.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of “helpful” comments actually come
across to an anxious child as dismissive.
“If they could just stop worrying, or
calm down, they would have,” Clancy points out.
times, anxiety comes for my son with its claws and fangs just when he’s trying
to sleep. “What if my math teacher keeps me in at recess? What if nobody wants
to play with me? How much longer will you and Daddy be alive?” His small face
contorts into furrows.
anxious questions are often rhetorical, leaving me in that gray area of
parenting where I can’t provide easy comfort, which then kicks my own anxiety
into gear. What kind of mother can’t soothe her own child? What if he needs
therapy or medication one day?
“The most important response is validation,”
Katie May, a licensed teen therapist in Pennsylvania, says. “When you tell your
children that their thoughts and feelings are not as bad as they are
communicating, you’re rejecting their personal experience of their emotions,
which may cause them to shut down.”
On the contrary, giving your child
understanding and “nonjudgmental acceptance” can help quell the anxiety. It’s
more helpful to acknowledge that you are both anxious, and to point your child
to where your anxiety manifests in your body.
“You might say ‘My stomach is in
knots and my heart is beating really fast,’” she recommends.
anxiety head on with validation and gentleness for both parent and child is the
really help your child become less anxious, however, you must work on your own
anxiety, whether through mindfulness techniques, therapy or exercise.
also recommends, “Don’t overly protect your child from situations that can
cause anxiety. Show children that you believe they are competent
by not hovering.”
Ultimately, therapists agree that you shouldn’t
"save" children from potentially anxiety provoking situations,
either. Avoiding doesn't give children opportunities to develop and practice
skills for coping with anxiety.
Here’s a helpful checklist for anxious parents and
· Validate the anxiety.
· Acknowledge you both feel
· Resist the urge to make it
go away or make it better.
· Engage in “square
breathing.” Hold your breath for a count of four. Repeat this four times.
Breathing slows your heart rate and grounds you in the moment.
· Count objects in the room.
A game of “I spy” or simple counting can help both of you return to the
present moment and take your minds off the anxiety trigger.
· Know the difference
between mild anxiety and serious anxiety. If your child’s anxiety is
interfering with your child’s overall happiness, causing sleep troubles,
nightmares or accidents, or if they're getting into trouble at school, it may be time to
seek professional help.