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While most children are inquisitive by nature, children who are anxious often take the concept of an inquiring mind to another level. They exhibit signs of stress, ask a lot of questions and sometimes even struggle with frequent headaches and stomachaches.
“Anxious children are ‘what if’ kids,” says Dr. Tamar Chansky, Philadelphia-based psychologist and author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety.” “They think ahead, need to know all the details, worry about what’s going to happen and are saddled with an imagination that fills in the blanks with worst-case scenarios.” If your child is anxious on a regular basis, provide him with the tools and skills to cope with anxiety on his own and with the help of the entire family.
Separate Fear from Fact
Parents can help kids get a grip on their worries by separating the fears from the facts, says Chansky. “When a child is afraid and what-iffing, a parent may say: ‘What’s your worry telling you about the test?’ Continue with: “Let’s test out worry. Do you think those things it's telling you are true?”
The more you break down the facts for your anxious child, the more he'll be able to decipher the difference between fear and facts. “The truth is much easier to live with than what their fear is presenting to them,” says Chansky.
Learning to master a situation with a positive outlook is an effective strategy for helping your child cope with anxious thoughts. Chansky recommends anxious children write down “smart thoughts” on note cards. Phrases such as “I am a good student,” “I studied for the test,” and “I usually do well,” reaffirm that the child can handle the situation. “Then, if they're having trouble, they can take a quick look at their cue card," says Chansky, "and get the information they need to master that situation."
As a parent, it’s natural to want to calm and reassure your child right away; however, Neil McNerney, a family therapist in Reston, Va., suggests teaching your child to reassure herself at first. Instead of immediately saying “Don’t worry about it,” when an anxious child sees clouds and fears lightning, try saying something like 'What do you think? Do you think white, puffy clouds will produce lightning?'
When parents get into the habit of reassuring their child’s worries, then the child doesn’t learn how to reassure herself, says McNerney. “The goal is to help the child learn to reassure herself instead of relying on others to reassure her.”
Anxiety often occurs when a child is unsure of himself or of a situation. Building your child’s confidence and showing him that you trust his ability to cope is an effective strategy to help him combat anxiety. Instead of starting with “Don’t worry,” McNerney recommends that parents say, “It looks like you are really worried about this. What can you do to help calm you down?”
Prompting your child to think of solutions will help build his confidence and allow him to cope with anxious feelings. “You are sending the message that you're confident that the child has the skills to calm himself down," says McNerney, "instead of the parent coming to the rescue."
Enlist Professional Help
Although teaching coping skills at home will help your anxious child to minimize these feelings, it’s also often a good idea, especially if the anxiety becomes moderate to severe, for the child to seek a professional therapist to gain additional resources for coping. “It is by far best to address these behaviors up front, as early as possible, with a skilled professional instead of waiting for kids to grow out of them,” says Cynthia Chauvin, Virginia-based hypnotherapist who has worked with children struggling with anxiety disorders. “Early intervention can change the entire trajectory of a child’s life.”