7 Simple Tips for Helping Your Child Work Through Their Anxiety

Parenting comes with its own set of joys and challenges. For many of today’s parents, one of the most common challenges that they are facing with their children is helping them cope with their anxiety. 

Anxiety is a completely natural emotion we have all experienced at some point in our lives. However, while many children naturally outgrow these overwhelming, worrisome feelings, a significant portion finds themselves grappling with persistent anxiety, especially when parents themselves don’t know how to cope or are unable to provide or access the proper support their child needs. 

Let’s take a deeper look at childhood anxiety and how parents can help empower their children with the tools and support they need to learn to work through it.

Teen girl with anxiety. Hands reaching towards her indicating overwhelm. Tips for Helping children work through their anxiety. Brain Insights.

Understanding Anxiety in Children

Before we can get into how to deal with anxiety, first, we have to understand what it is. To get a better understanding of childhood anxiety, imagine a child’s brain as a busy workshop where feelings are being made. At the forefront of the workshop is the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that’s in charge of all of the emotions, including anxiety, fear, and stress. In anxious children, the amygdala tends to hit the panic button for no reason, like an overactive fire alarm in a kitchen without smoke.

Now, onto the prefrontal cortex – think of it as the brain’s CEO. However, in a child’s brain, the prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed, so this CEO is still figuring out the ropes as things happen. So, when it comes to dealing with big emotions, especially anxiety, there’s a considerable learning curve before the prefrontal cortex will know how to handle it properly. 

So, why should parents care about all this sciencey brain stuff? Well, it’s the key to understanding why a child might be experiencing such strong feelings of anxiety all the time. While anxiety is a regular emotion, when it starts messing with their daily activities and routine – enter the worry, fussiness, and maybe even some stomachaches – these are parents’ first cues to step in and be the emotional support superheroes their children need. 

Child with anxiety standing by a window. Tips for Helping children work through their anxiety. Brain Insights.

Recognizing Signs of Anxiety 

As parents, the first step to helping a child learn to cope with their anxiety is learning to recognize their triggers. Spotting these signs can get a little tricky, and they will vary from child to child. It could be anything from school concerns to socializing in groups. However, once you’re able to recognize and identify these triggers, you’ll be prepared to tackle them before feelings of anxiety become a full-blown panic attack.

Although there are many things that we can’t see that may trigger a child’s anxiety, there may be physical signs that are easier for us to recognize. If a child is suddenly complaining of stomach aches, headaches, or even the occasional “I might throw up” moment, these can all be signals that anxiety is on the rise. Some children might experience a faster heartbeat, sweaty palms, or sudden crying, while others could freeze and stop talking entirely. 

Understanding a child’s unique cues is like acting as an emotional safety net for your child. As you begin to recognize these signs, you’ll get a better sense of when you need to step in to help them work through their feelings. 

Child with anxiety in a school setting. Tips for Helping children work through their anxiety. Brain Insights.

What NOT to Do When Your Child Has Anxiety

Knowing what not to do when your child is experiencing anxiety is just as important as knowing how to handle it. Children’s brains are still forming, and our words and reactions to their emotions become a part of how they learn to process things independently.

When handling a child with anxiety (and big emotions in general), it’s important that we don’t label certain emotions as good or bad. All emotions have a purpose, and all emotions are valid whether they make sense to our adult brains or not. By labeling an emotion such as anxiety as “bad,” children may learn to suppress that emotion or begin to believe that they themselves are bad for even feeling that emotion. 

It’s also important that we remember not to minimize their anxiety. Saying things like, “It’s not a big deal,” is downplaying the very real emotion the child is experiencing. For them, they are suffering internally with this emotion that they don’t know how to cope with. Although our words might urge them to face their anxiety head-on (which is technically the ultimate goal), by forcing them to do something they’re anxious about, we can accidentally make their anxiety worse. Sending empathy and compassion their way instead of tough love is like the soft landing they need when facing those anxiety-inducing moments. 

Woman comforting her son with anxiety. Tips for Helping children work through their anxiety. Brain Insights.

7 Strategies for Parents to Help Their Child Cope with Anxiety

Now that we can recognize signs of anxiety in children and know what not to do, here are 7 strategies parents can implement when their child is suffering from anxiety: 

1. Be Their Safe Space

Create a safe space at home for your child to express their feelings without judgment. Let them know that you’re always available to talk and then actively listen when they do. Remind them that it’s okay to feel anxious and reassure them that you’ll always be there to support them when they need it. Empathize with them and ensure they know that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences matter and are valid regardless of what anyone else might think.

2. Teach Them Coping Strategies

Introduce your child to mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and guided imagery, to help them regulate their emotions and manage stress. Then, equip them with practical coping strategies like specific breathing exercises to use in stressful situations. Normalizing that you also have anxious moments and use these same skills helps mirror behaviors for your child to better understand how it can work for them. 

3. Create a Dependable Routine

Children with anxiety excel when they know what to expect. By creating a predictable daily routine that they can depend on, you’re providing them with an extra sense of stability that helps to reduce the amount of anxiety triggers that they experience throughout the day. It can even be as simple as knowing they have to start their homework after school and be ready for dinner at 6 pm. 

4. Encourage Healthy Habits

Proper sleep, exercise, and balanced nutrition are the foundations of protecting your child’s mental health. By encouraging healthy habits, you’re supporting your child’s overall brain health, which can positively impact their mood and stress levels. 

5. Practice Problem Solving

Children often become anxious when faced with a problem that’s too big for them to handle. Teach them how to take a problem and break it down into more bite-sized and manageable parts rather than tackling the whole thing at once. This helps to give them a better sense of control over their environment to lessen their feelings of anxiety.

6. Reduce Stress

If possible, reduce your child’s exposure to the things that are causing them stress. Maybe they’re under too much pressure academically, taking too many extracurricular activities, or certain social situations make them uncomfortable. Limiting stress can also lessen the amount of times their anxiety is triggered. 

7. Seek Professional Help

Knowing when to ask for help is a great way to support your child with anxiety. When a child expresses more frequent or intense fears than others and the anxiety starts to impact their functioning at school, home, or in the community, or when it significantly impacts the family, it is time to seek help. Child anxiety can be treated with a child psychologist or other mental health professionals in individual therapy. In some cases, however, children are not open to or able to attend therapy. In those cases, parents can work with a child psychologist to learn how to change their parenting behaviors and thereby reduce their child’s anxiety. This latter approach is a new treatment called Supportive Parenting of Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE).

Parents helping their child with anxiety. Tips for Helping children work through their anxiety. Brain Insights.

Every child is unique, and no child will deal with anxiety in the same way. However, learning their triggers, understanding their emotions, and helping them work through their feelings are great first steps in supporting your child and helping them work through their emotions. Promoting an open and empathetic environment is perfect for laying the groundwork for communication skills and emotional regulation. As your child learns to navigate their emotions, through being an active participant in their emotional journey, you can help support them and give them the skills they’ll need to face their anxiety with resilience and strength.