A little bit of anxiety is developmentally appropriate for children. As they grow, children are learning to navigate not only their own increased freedoms and responsibilities, but also the fact that they aren’t always protected in this big and sometimes scary world. This is called normative anxiety and, typically, a child moves on from their worries after a short while. However, some children seem to be magnets for anxiety…and no matter what, worry just seems to stick to them!
While some children struggle with specific situations, such as being apart from their parents, being in new social situations, or fears around natural disasters, kids with generalized anxiety (GAD) may worry about all of these things. As a parent, or caregiver, it can be frustrating and challenging to deal with kids who experience generalized anxiety, as their worry is constant and STUBBORN. Because most are trying to be good parents, they often go the route of avoiding what may trigger their child’s anxiety by doing any or all of these things; giving in to requests to skip school, promising that specific bad things “will not happen,” reassuring their child that everything is okay, and the list goes on. The down side of this is that reassurance and avoidance often times feed the very worry that is already causing havoc.
So what is one simple thing a parent can do to help their anxious child? Most importantly, you can help your child adopt a “bravery approach,” to facing their fears. One way to do this is to come up with a name for their fears (such as, the “monster brain,” or “worry mind,”) and encourage them to fight back when the worry sets in. They can “fight back” against the worry by coming up with smart, or helpful thoughts. Here is how that might look:
Child (worried about facing a new situation) “Mommy, my stomach hurts and I don’t want to go to school.”
Mom: “Your stomach hurts. Hmm, it sounds like monster brain is being a bully this morning! What can we tell monster brain to make him go away?”
Child: “Stop being a bully monster brain! I am my own boss.”
In the above scenario the child was able to fight back against their worry thought very easily, however, most often it takes a lot of coaching and practice. If you keep at it, the new and "brave" mind set will win, and you'll start to see that your child has less trouble with their anxious thoughts. Sometimes it's beneficial to add a reward system which can help your child develop the incentive to be brave. Rewards don’t have to be monetary, in fact, often children enjoy “special time” with a parent the most.
As caregivers, you are the main lens through which your child looks at the world. If you model bravery by not operating out of fear, by encouraging them to try new things, and helping develop “smart thoughts” in response to their worry thoughts, you will start to see improvement!
Written by: Kaitlin Soule, LMFT