Teaching parents how to cope with a child’s anxiety

Article at a glance:

  • Effectively managing your own emotions will make it easier to respond to your child’s anxiety.
  • Things like coping skills, mindfulness, support systems, and planning ahead can take a lot of the stress out of your life.
  • Remember not to take your child’s behavior or anxiety personally.

Parenting a child with anxiety can be heartbreaking, frustrating, and exhausting. Teaching your child how to cope with anxiety is important, but just as important is teaching yourself how to cope with your child’s anxiety.

Anxiety can be intense and when your child is caught in a whirlwind of emotions, it can be easy to get sucked in too. You may feel angry that your child won’t just listen to you, anxious about not being able to quiet your child’s fears, or frustrated that your child is making your life so much harder than it needs to be. Add that to the normal stresses parents undergo every day, and it is a tall order for anybody. But if you are reeling from your emotions, it will be very hard to help your child settle his or her own emotions.

“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” – L.R. Knost

Learning to cope with your child’s anxiety will make life easier, even when things are hard. The best part is that children learn by watching. As you model these behaviors, you will also be teaching your child in one of the most effective ways possible.

Developing your own coping skills:

Your child isn’t the only one who needs coping skills. You will too—lots of them. When your child is in the middle of an emotional storm, what helps you stay grounded? Giving yourself a “timeout” can be a wonderful way to clear your head. But sometimes we don’t get the luxury of timeouts. In the heat of the moment, things like deep breathing, or counting can help. So can repeating a mantra like “This isn’t personal” or “This is hard for my child too.”

Recognizing that it isn’t anybody’s fault:

When your child is struggling, it is hard not to take it personally. Sometimes we get caught up in a blame game. We may feel like it is our fault or we may blame our spouse. Remind yourself that lots of kids have imperfect parents and they don’t have anxiety. Anxiety is caused by a variety of things and you don’t have to shoulder all the blame.

Anxiety is also not your child’s fault. Your child doesn’t want to make you angry or frustrated. Children with anxiety just lack the skills to manage some of life’s stresses. Children are still developing cognitively, and it will take some time before they can develop the coping skills needed to help regulate their emotions. You will need to be patient and work with your child, not against each other.

Planning ahead:

Deciding how you are going to respond ahead of time to certain scenarios gives you the opportunity to reasonably decide on the best response. Even just deciding to stay calm can make it more likely you will follow through later. For example, if your child melts down at the school’s entrance every day, talk to her teacher about what supports are available. It could be a comfort object in the classroom or a distracting activity. Sometimes volunteering to help in the classroom can be a helpful transition back into school after a long break. If you know what to do next, you won’t feel as helpless or frustrated when problems arise.

Practicing mindfulness:

Our body responds to stress by tightening up. When we are under constant stress our body doesn’t get a chance to release the tension, which can cause health problems and make it hard to stay calm. However, by using techniques like progressive relaxation, deep breathing, or meditation, we can train ourselves to release that tension. These are great skills for your child to learn too. Below are a couple of videos you might want to share with your child.

Building a support system:

Parents often feel isolated. When your child has special needs, that feeling can be amplified. Look for parents who are struggling with similar problems or nonjudgmental friends whom you can talk to. Educate your extended family on your child’s special needs. Let them know how to help or at least give them some context for the behavior. Find people who are willing to help and be sure to accept help when they offer it.

Creating good memories:

Building a strong relationship with your child will help both of you weather the rough parts. The best way to do this is through wholesome family activities. Find activities that everybody enjoys and that don’t trigger your child’s anxiety. During these moments, families can get to know each other, have time to communicate, and discover all the wonderful things they love about each other. It doesn’t have to be fancy—just go to the park, go on a hike, or play a board game.

Identifying the problem areas:

Take a look at your day and find those things that cause the most stress. Is it bedtime? Or maybe the rush to get to soccer practice? Then look for the things that make it hard. Is your child afraid of being in the dark? Is it not being able to find your child’s shoes? Think ahead about how to resolve the problems, whether it is buying a brighter nightlight or organizing the shoes better. It doesn’t mean your life needs to be perfectly organized, it just needs to work for you.

Slowing things down:

Anxiety is hard enough, anxiety on a schedule is a ticking time bomb. Cut down on extra-curricular commitments and avoid overscheduling. Make going to bed on time a priority. Simplify your lives so that you all have the time and energy to focus on what is important.

Studying up:

Parenting an anxious child might be very different than the way you were raised. You may need some help breaking bad habits or creating new ones. Plus, learning more about anxiety will give you more tools to work with and help you better understand your child’s behavior.

Talking to a therapist:

If you are feeling overwhelmed, seeing a therapist can be helpful. A therapist can help you learn new coping techniques or identify patterns that might need changing. Anxiety is often hereditary, so if you are struggling with anxiety too, getting help can be important for both you and your child.

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