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6 ways you can help your anxious child

November 19, 2012

by Michelle Morris

Anxious children can benefit a great deal by support from their parents. The following tips will provide you with some ideas for helping your anxious child.

1. Routines And Structure

Establish consistent daily routines and structure. Routines reduce anxiety and regular daily patterns emphasize predictability. A regular routine will give a sense of control to both parent and child. Anxious children do not cope well with a disorganized, spontaneous family life style.

Take care of the basic needs of your child, especially to prevent fatigue and hunger. Establish a regular bedtime routine consisting of quieter activities (e.g. bath, reading with parent, talking with parent), which helps your child to gradually relax.

Provide opportunities for exercise. Exercise is helpful in relieving stress and helping your child’s body to relax.

It is important for children to have limits set and consequences for breaking the limits. Children feel secure when there are limits setting restrictions on inappropriate behaviours.

2. Help Children Identify Feelings

Help your child notice different feelings by naming various feelings she or others may experience. Explain how people show their feelings (through faces, bodies, words) and that showing your feelings is an important way for others to understand how you are feeling. Help your child notice how different feelings “feel” in his own body, for example tight hands, butterflies in stomach, etc.

3. Provide Opportunities for Communicating About and Feelings

It is helpful for children to talk about their feelings, however talking about feelings is not easy for children, especially when they are asked directly. It is important for parents to watch and listen carefully for the times when a child does express feelings, either directly through words or indirectly through behaviours. At these times, you can help your child by acknowledging and accepting her feelings through simply reflecting them back to her and refraining from providing advice or asking questions. When a child’s feelings are criticized, disapproved of, or not accepted by a parent, his internal sense of self is weakened.

4. Provide Soothing and Comforting Strategies

Comforting and soothing a child are very helpful strategies that parents can use in relieving anxiety. These strategies communicate to the child that she is safe and cared for. Verbal reassurances of safety and love, rocking, cuddling, holding, massage, singing, and telling stories are just some of the soothing and comforting strategies that parents can use. Parents may be surprised to realize that children may sometimes need comforting and soothing that seems to the parent to be too “babyish” for the child’s age. However, anxious children do need extra soothing experiences that relax and relieve the tension in their bodies.

 5. Respect Your Child’s Fears

Children are generally not helped when parents tell them to stop being afraid of something. What is helpful to most children is an approach in which you acknowledge their fears and at the same time let them know that you will help them overcome these fears.

6. Model Brave Behaviour

Children look to others for guidance on how to respond in unfamiliar situations. They usually watch for cues from their parents and use these cues to help determine if the situation is safe or not. If the parent’s response is fearful or anxious, the child’s response is also likely to be fearful or anxious.

Although it is important for parents to model appropriate cautionary and safety behaviours when appropriate, it is important for parents to act as confident and brave role models as well. If a parent is overly anxious and over-protective, this anxiety can be easily communicated to a child with the accompanying message that the world is too dangerous. As well, the child also receives the message that he is incapable.

Parents need to acknowledge and understand their own anxieties and make an effort to contain them when appropriate in the presence of their children. Sometimes, parents need to act brave even if they don’t feel brave. An important and helpful message for an anxious child to receive from a parent is that the parent has confidence both in the child and in the situation.

Michelle Morris is the principal psychologist at Life Resolutions Caroline Springs in Victoria.  She has over 30 years experience working in private practice and holds several qualifications. In additional to being a registered psychologist, she is a qualified nurse, midwife and holds postgraduate qualifications in law and family therapy.  Michelle has a special interest in family relationships. She is passionate in helping family members access skills to manage difficult and challenging times.

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