The first three things to do when you have an anxious child

5 Nov

Where do you begin when you have an anxious child whose head is filled with thoughts such as, “Am I going to die?” or “Am I going to hurt you? Obviously, the first step is to get a complete picture of what is going on with your child with a professional consultation. But for discussion’s sake, let’s assume that the basic problem is what we might term “an overactive alarm bell.” Be warned: anxiety can be a stubborn creature, so dealing with it can take a lot of work and persistence. Anxious children can become quite negative when you start to do things differently, so it is important that you and your child learn something about how worry operates. Here are the first three things you need to help your anxious child.
First, anxiety narrows our perspective and how we see the world, so we need to get distance by labeling and personifying the problem with names such as “the worry monster,” “brain bug,” or “Mr. Worry.” It is best if your child can come up with his/her own name for worry. It may seem that these names are silly, but doing this is actually an important step for the child in getting some psychological distance from these ever present concerns. The book You’ve Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave can be helpful in conveying this point to elementary school age children.
Second, we need to get out of the reassurance trap. Our natural inclination as parents is to provide reassurance—arguably, it is perhaps what we do best. Unfortunately, all of the reassurance we give our anxious children does not really help, and in fact it actually makes the anxiety worse, since it gives the fears a measure of credibility. Easing away from giving reassurance requires a thoughtful plan, and a way to explain the change to your child. Otherwise, he or she will simply freak out. Simple interventions can involve “putting worry on a diet” by only allowing so many worry questions a day, or making worry wait 10 minutes before answering questions. It is important to emphasize that the child really needs to understand the rational for the intervention, since this way of responding is so different from how parents and children normally communicate.
Third, these initial efforts must be supported by communications that first connect with how the child is feeling, and then redirect him/her. I call these “ two-part sentences.” Examples might be: “This is a scary thought, sounds like a worry monster question,” or “I can see you are worried, let’s play catch for a bit.” And there are many variations of these types of statements which first connect with how the child is feeling and then try to help him/her get off the worry channel.
Remember that anxiety is quite persistent, so it is important to really understand how worry works. Your child is really hoping for some magic cure, and may be quick to say that nothing is working, so you both need to understand that conquering worry does not happen overnight. In addition to my blog and podcast there are a number of helpful books that clarify the process of dealing with anxiety, I like Lawrence Cohen’s The Opposite of Worry, Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons’ Anxious Parents, Anxious Kids, Dawn Huebner’s What to Do When You Worry too Much or What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck, and the online program GoZen.com. So these are first step., Next will be helping your child begin to face his/her fears.
copyright@Edward H. Plimpton

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