Parenting a Child with Anxiety: Insights from a Psychologist 

Parenthood is a beautiful and fulfilling journey that brings joy and meaning to our lives. However, it can also present challenges, particularly when raising a child with anxiety. Anxiety disorders affect a significant number of children worldwide. In fact, anxiety disorders are considered one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in children with rates estimated to be around 10-20%.  

As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and ADHD, I know it is crucial for parents to understand the psychological aspects of their child’s condition and how they can provide support. In this blog post, I will delve into the psychology of anxiety in children and offer practical recommendations for parents to help their child navigate these challenges. 

Understanding Childhood Anxiety: 

Anxiety is a natural emotion that helps us recognize and respond to potential threats. However, when anxiety becomes excessive and interferes with a child’s daily life, it may be indicative of an anxiety disorder. Common types of anxiety disorders in children include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder (SAD), social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. 

Anxiety can occur in children of all ages, from preschoolers to teenagers, but because they are not always able to verbalize what they are thinking and feeling, youth often express anxiety through physical complaints (like headaches or stomachaches), clinginess, school refusal, or changes in behavior. 

Anxiety disorders can have a long-lasting impact if left untreated. They can interfere with a child’s academic performance, social relationships, and overall quality of life. Early intervention and support are crucial in helping children manage their anxiety and develop healthy coping strategies. Parent involvement is key to their child’s success. 

1. Educate Yourself: 

As a parent, the first step towards supporting your child with anxiety is to educate yourself about the condition. Learn about the different types of anxiety disorders, their symptoms, and triggers. This knowledge will enable you to recognize the signs of anxiety in your child and respond appropriately.  

One of my favorite books for parents about anxiety is Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD by Eli R. Lebowitz. This book explores various kinds of anxiety and the ways that parents unknowingly exacerbate their child’s anxiety and reinforcing it through accommodation and invalidation.  

Parents can effectively reduce their children’s anxiety by modifying their own responses to their children’s symptoms, focusing on replacing accommodating behaviors with supportive responses that acknowledge and accept their children’s difficulties while promoting their ability to cope. To date, the treatment outlined in this book is the choice parent-based intervention for anxiety. The book is very well written, easy to read, and written specifically for parents. 

If reading a full book seems like too much, I recommend committing to reading an article or two online. Some of my favorite websites for simple mental health resources are childmind.org and Kids Health

2. Foster Open Communication: 

Establishing open and non-judgmental communication with your child is crucial. Encourage them to express their feelings and fears without fear of criticism or invalidation. Active listening and empathy will help your child feel understood and supported, allowing them to develop coping strategies. 

Being able to listen means parents need to refrain from judgement and really let their child talk. Parents have to know how to cope with their child’s negative feelings and manage their own emotions. One of the most effective ways of opening communication between children and their parents (especially teens!) is through Collaborative Problem Solving. Listening techniques in collaborative problem solving involve actively listening to the child’s perspective, empathizing with their concerns, and valuing their input in order to foster a cooperative and mutually satisfying resolution. 

Raising Human Beings by Ross W. Greene explores the delicate task parents face of understanding their child’s unique qualities, beliefs, and goals, while also promoting independence and avoiding overbearing behavior. Striking a balance between a child’s individual characteristics and a parent’s desire to exert influence is key. Dr. Ross Greene’s collaborative problem-solving model offers an alternative approach to traditional parenting methods, empowering parents to forgo punitive measures, listen to and validate their children, and establish clear and doable guidelines. “Raising Human Beings” provides practical and empathetic advice, inspiring parents, teachers, and caregivers to cultivate healthier relationships with the children in their lives. You can also find out more about this technique on their website or by working with a therapist who trains parents in this approach. 

3. Create a Safe Environment: 

Anxiety can make a child feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. Parents can foster a safe and nurturing environment at home by maintaining consistent routines, providing a calm space, and minimizing stressful triggers.  

Children with anxiety often thrive in predictable and structured environments. Establish consistent routines for daily activities such as mealtimes, bedtime, and homework. Consistency helps reduce uncertainty and provides a sense of stability, which can alleviate anxiety. 

Parents can also work to identify and minimize potential triggers of anxiety within the environment. This could involve reducing exposure to certain media, creating a quiet and calm space at home, or avoiding chaotic or overwhelming situations whenever possible. Sometimes knowing what the triggers are can be difficult. Consider tracking incidents where your child exhibits significant anxiety and then recalling what happened immediately before and immediately after to look for clues. 

4. Teach Relaxation Techniques: 

Teaching relaxation techniques can empower your child to manage anxiety independently. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness can help regulate their emotions and reduce anxiety symptoms.  

Progressive muscle relaxation involves systematically tensing and relaxing different muscle groups, promoting a release of tension and a sense of calm. Mindfulness, on the other hand, encourages focusing on the present moment without judgment, allowing individuals to become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, leading to increased self-regulation and a reduction in anxiety symptoms. These practices provide children and teens with practical tools to manage their anxiety, promote a sense of control, and enhance their overall well-being. 

Apps like Headspace, Calm, and others have guided meditations and breathing activities geared toward kids and adolescents. YouTube also offers numerous free relaxation videos for children and teens. 

Practice these techniques together regularly with your child or teen, especially when they are well-regulated. Waiting until they are highly anxious would be like trying to teach someone to ride a bicycle in a tornado – very little learning will take place and it may even make things worse. Instead, build in one or more of these activities into your daily routine so that when a stressful moment arises, you can engage in that technique almost as if it were second nature. 

5. Encourage Healthy Habits: 

Promote a healthy lifestyle that supports your child’s overall well-being. Ensure they get sufficient sleep, engage in regular physical activity, and maintain a balanced diet. These factors play a significant role in managing anxiety and promoting emotional resilience. 

Sleep is crucial for children and teens’ mental health and anxiety levels. Insufficient sleep can lead to heightened emotional reactivity, difficulty managing stress, impaired problem-solving ability, and a lower threshold for anxiety. Adequate sleep, on the other hand, promotes emotional regulation, cognitive abilities, and resilience to stressors.  

Sufficient sleep also helps maintain the balance of neurotransmitters and hormones involved in mood and stress responses. Establishing consistent bedtime routines, creating a conducive sleep environment, limiting screen time, and promoting physical activity can support better sleep hygiene and reduce anxiety.

Engaging in regular physical activity can also help reduce anxiety levels. Encourage your child to participate in age-appropriate physical activities they enjoy, such as sports, yoga, or dancing. Physical exercise releases endorphins and promotes a sense of well-being. 

6. Avoid Overprotection: 

While it is natural to want to shield your child from distress, overprotective behavior may inadvertently reinforce their anxiety. Gradually expose your child to manageable situations that trigger anxiety, supporting them through the process. This approach, known as exposure therapy, can help them confront their fears and build resilience. 

One of the central tenants of anxiety is the overestimation that something bad will happen and the overestimation of how bad that incident will be. Individuals with anxiety tend to underestimate their ability to respond to bad things that arise. Therefore, exposure therapy allows the child or teen to compare their thoughts with reality by testing it out. When confronting their fears, they see that terrible things are significantly less likely to occur than their anxiety tells them, and they are so much more competent than they think. 

Working with a mental health professional trained in exposure-based techniques can provide parents with valuable strategies and ensure the safety and effectiveness of the exposure process. By promoting gradual exposure, parents can empower their child to overcome anxiety and thrive in various aspects of their life. 

7. Promote Social Skills: 

Anxiety can significantly impact a child’s social interactions. Encourage your child to engage in social activities, fostering their social skills and self-confidence. Gradual exposure to social situations and opportunities to practice assertiveness and communication can help reduce anxiety in social settings. 

Some children may need more help than a simple push in the right direction. These children and teens may benefit from a social skills group where they learn and practice interacting with others their age.  

8. Encourage Self-Care: 

Teach your child the importance of self-care and self-compassion. Encourage them to engage in activities they enjoy, such as hobbies, reading, or spending time in nature. Building a strong self-care routine helps manage stress and promotes emotional well-being. 

I see too many children who have developed anxiety from overscheduling. Well-meaning parents want to give their child the best possible life which includes lots of opportunities for learning and enrichment. While these activities are certainly enriching, children who have too many activities start to become overwhelmed and anxious. Everyday children and teens need Playtime, Downtime, and Family time (PDF). Not having these is a recipe for anxiety. 

By nurturing self-care habits, your child can learn effective strategies for managing stress, promoting emotional well-being, and cultivating a positive relationship with themselves. Additionally, modeling self-care and self-compassion in your own life serves as a powerful example for your child to follow. 

9. Model Healthy Coping Strategies: 

Anxiety is at least partially influenced by genetics so you may struggle with anxiety yourself. If that is the case, be sure that you are getting help for yourself including professional support. 

As a parent, you are an influential role model for your child. You need to demonstrate healthy coping strategies in your own life, such as managing stress effectively, practicing self-care, and seeking support when needed. Your example will inspire your child and be incredibly valuable in how they perceive their own responses to anxiety.  

10. Collaborate with Professionals: 

Consulting a mental health professional who specializes in child psychology is highly recommended. A psychologist can assess your child’s anxiety levels, provide an accurate diagnosis, and develop a tailored treatment plan. Collaborate with a psychologist and implement their recommendations effectively.