Coping during COVID-19: Parenting an anxious child
“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
- Christopher Robin
As a parent, you’ve probably heard and seen it all when it comes to your child. They come to you when they’re hungry, happy or needing a change of clothes. When bad dreams bother them, when they simply want to play or need a glass of water – you as the parent are usually their go-to. You know what to do to help your child. But what about when they’re anxious?
When a child feels anxious, it may look very different to the adults which they may turn to for help. Anxiety in children may look like unexplained tummy aches, bouts of tears, muscle tension, headaches or a feeling of dread welling up inside. One of the most challenging aspects of childhood anxiety is how it may present as a constellation of complaints, ranging from a fear of separation to difficulty falling asleep, or even being easily agitated and snapping at others.
When parenting an anxious child, the goal is not necessarily to eliminate the anxiety but rather to help the child manage the anxiety in a healthy and adaptive manner. Nobody wants to see their child anxious or unhappy, but as a parent you are not always in the position to be able to remove the triggers of your child’s anxiety. Rather, when helping them to tolerate anxiety, you empower your child to better manage their emotional experiences.
How you respond to your child’s anxiety is vitally important. As a rule of thumb, remember: Empathy first and empathy always. When we respond with empathy, the anxious child will generally feel validated. Acknowledge what your child is feeling, rather than moving into action to solve it or push their emotional state aside. By telling a child that there’s nothing to feel anxious about, we invalidate their very real emotional experience. Ask the child questions about what they're going through, thereby showing them that you want to better understand them. Let them know that you see they are in distress, and you hear what they are saying. You could say, “I can see that you’re scared. I’ve been scared before too, and I know what that feels like.” Engaging the child in an open and non-judgmental manner, where they relay their story or emotional experience, helps them take charge of their emotional experience, open communication, while also improving on their emotional vocabulary.
Anxiety is often such a captivating emotional state, with many “what if’s” running through the mind. “What if they don’t like me?”, “What if mommy gets sick?”, “What if this feeling lasts forever?” are just some examples of anxiety-provoking thoughts that a child might ruminate on. By practicing grounding exercises, the child is taught to be mindful of the present moment which can assist them in regulating their emotions. Ask your child to tune into their senses as a way to ground them in the present, by using the 5,4,3,2,1 technique. Ask them to name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch and so forth. By engaging the senses, the child is connected to the here-and-now present moment.
Let your child know that you appreciate their willingness to engage with their emotions and to tolerate their anxiety. By modelling an openness to talk about emotions and developing healthy responses to anxiety-provoking situations, you also teach your child that anxiety is something that can be managed. If we want to prepare our children for facing challenging circumstances and uncomfortable emotional states, we can begin with preparing them to talk candidly about worrisome topics.