How To Help Anxious Children Understand What They Can Control

Does your child struggle with anxiety? 

Most children learn how to regulate big emotions around the age of 5. However, that doesn’t mean their emotional development is anywhere near finished. For children and teens who experience anxiety, regulating emotions that trigger those intense feelings of worry can quickly become overwhelming and spiral out of control. 

As a parent, it’s natural to want to help our children work out these complex emotions. However, it can be hard to know where to start. One great way to help kids understand and ease their anxiety is to help them understand the difference between what is in their control and what isn’t. 

In today’s post, we’ll talk about how to help children with anxiety recognize what they can control to give them the tools they’ll need to handle and manage their emotions. 

Mother comforting son. Helping anxious children understand what they can control.

Understanding Anxiety and Control

Whether we like it or not, worry is our body’s natural response to stress and fear. Thoughts like ‘What’s going to happen now?’ or ‘What if I did something differently?’ are our body’s way of preparing and getting us ready for what could be coming next. When something triggers either of these emotions, our central nervous system takes the hint and responds by worrying

When we get stuck in an endless, constant state of worry, that’s when worry spills over and becomes anxiety. 

Anxiety blurs the lines between what we can and can’t control which leads to feelings of powerlessness and anxiousness. For children, it’s hard for them to see what they can control when anxiety is clouding their minds. By understanding exactly what’s within their control, they can learn how to handle their anxiety more effectively. Then, when they realize they can change, it gives them back their sense of power.

By helping our kids take charge and navigate the difference between what is and isn’t in their control, they can beat their anxiety and thrive.

Anxious girl sitting by the water. Helping anxious children understand what they can control.

Categorizing Your Worries

When stress and worry creep in, it’s easy for children to feel overwhelmed and uncertain of what to do. Teaching your kids to list out their concerns and literally sort them into what’s within their control and what isn’t in their control can be a first step to helping them manage their anxiety. 

Understanding that they can’t control everything can be a hard lesson for young minds to learn. However, once they’ve learned to identify what’s outside of their control, they can shift their focus and energy to what is within their power to influence. 

Coping with their anxiety will become much easier when your child is focusing on what they can control. Even when faced with uncertainty, they’ll be able to take action to resolve problems and ease their worry. This proactive approach can instill confidence in their ability to handle whatever life throws their way and take charge of their emotions.

Things You Can Control

1. Actions and Reactions

While children and young adults can’t control what happens to the people and environment around them, they can control the actions and reactions they have in response. This is the biggest concept they need to learn in their journey of managing their anxiety. 

No one can control what happens to them or what happens around them. However, you can always control what you do next. Coping mechanisms like deep breathing or simply taking a break can make a huge difference in their next steps. By removing themselves from the situation and giving themselves time to assess and process, they can make a conscious choice over their actions and reactions. 

2. Thoughts and Attitude

Thoughts have a huge impact on feelings and emotions. Although kids may not be able to control the negative thoughts that pop into their minds, they can learn to challenge them and replace them with more positive and constructive ones. Techniques like cognitive restructuring and positive affirmations can help reframe irrational and distorted thinking and encourage a growth mindset. These can help them to shift their perspective and reduce their anxiety. 

3. Choices in Response

Even when things feel out of control, it’s important to remind your kids they still have choices. When it comes to setbacks and challenges, they always have a choice in how they respond. They can ask for help, try again, or step back to regroup and evaluate their emotions. Knowing that they always have a choice gives them agency and autonomy when it comes to navigating through life’s challenges. By consciously choosing how they’re going to respond to a situation, they learn to assert control over their own lives by choosing the response that lines up with their values and goals. 

Anxious child screaming. Helping anxious children understand what they can control.

Things You Can’t Control

1. Other People’s Behaviors and Feelings

Anxiety over what other people think of them is a common worry for kids and teens, especially in today’s society. The need to do what they need to do to fit in can often take precedence over their own thoughts and emotions. However, it’s important for them to realize that no matter how hard they try, they cannot control how others think or feel. What they can do is learn to focus on themselves and their own wants and needs and set healthy boundaries in their relationships. 

2. Natural Disasters and Unexpected Events

Life is unpredictable. There are bound to be unexpected events and surprises that pop up, some of which won’t be pleasant. For children, anxiety over family emergencies and natural disasters can be hard to cope with. They may find themselves worrying over their parents’ health, accidents, or emergencies that can result in big life changes. However, it’s important for them to learn to not get caught up in the “what ifs” and focus on the present. To help them manage this type of anxiety, parents can teach them practical life skills and work as a family to create plans in case of an emergency. 

3. Past Experiences and Circumstances 

It’s possible that some of our kids’ anxiety comes from things that happened in the past. This can be past experiences or traumas that linger in their minds, taking up too much of their mental attention. While they can’t change the past, they can change how they think about the past. They can learn to reframe their thoughts and focus on what they can learn from those past experiences. As parents, we can help them cope with their worries by encouraging them to practice self-compassion and to seek support when they need to. 

Parents helping child learn to ride a bike. Helping anxious children understand what they can control.

SPACE Treatment for Parents of Children with Anxiety

For parents of children with anxiety, it can be hard to figure out where to start in order to give children the proper support and tools they need. That’s where Dr. Eli Lebowitz’s SPACE treatment steps in to help. SPACE stands for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions. SPACE is a treatment program for parents of children and adolescents struggling with anxiety.

Remember how we talked about focusing on what is within your child’s control and what is not? SPACE takes the approach that parents (despite all of their best efforts and intentions) cannot control how their child is feeling, but parents can change their own actions in response to their child’s anxiety. SPACE gives parents the tools they need to effectively respond to their childhood anxiety and set the foundation for independence in anxious children. SPACE is especially great for helping children who refuse or are unable to engage in therapy independently but can also be added on to individual or family therapy. 

SPACE works by addressing family accommodations. As parents, it’s natural for you to try to shield your child from the triggers that cause their anxiety. However, by constantly accommodating them and their fears, you’re not giving them the tools they need to cope and move beyond their anxiety. SPACE teaches parents new ways to interact with their children without giving in to their child’s anxiety and still holding onto parents’ boundaries. Through SPACE, parents learn how to be the solution to their child’s anxiety instead of feeding into it. 

Parents playing with their children. Helping anxious children understand what they can control.

Helping anxious children understand control is key to managing their anxieties and feel better. By learning to sort through their worries and acknowledge that some things are simply out of their control, they get on a clear path to handling tough situations with strength and confidence. 

As a SPACE treatment provider, I understand how difficult it can be to support your child through their anxiety. My goal is to help parents help their children without giving in to their anxiety. Reach out today to learn more about SPACE treatment and how it can benefit your family.