When I was seven, I used to shower with the curtain half open so that I could keep one eye on the toilet. It became a ritual of sorts; I’d check to make sure the lid was firmly closed, and periodically poke my head out to make sure that there were absolutely no reptiles making their way from the sewers and into my parents’ suburban, New Jersey bathroom. Like most childhood fears, this never significantly interfered in my life. I didn’t stop showering, and eventually, it passed. In fact, it’s developmentally normal for children to exhibit certain types of fear while growing up. Check out this posting to learn more about typical fears by age. However, what do you do if your child’s fears aren’t typical? What if they do interfere in his or her life, or in the day to day functioning of your family? Read on to learn strategies to help your child cope!
- Avoid the avoidance trap: Your child has just returned home from school, he’s sobbing. He received a D on a test. He’s begging, pleading, please don’t make him go tomorrow. Just tomorrow, he’s convinced that he won’t be able to face his teacher or his friends. He’ll feel better on Wednesday, he promises he’ll go back on Wednesday. What do you do? This is a slippery slope. While your heart is probably breaking while watching your child struggle with these intense emotions, once you start allowing him to avoid situations that evoke anxiety, you are teaching him that he is unable to handle the situation and his own emotions. Avoidance can quickly become a cycle that becomes more and more difficult to manage over time. So what do you do instead?
- Do help your child learn to self-soothe: If your child is exhibiting the type of intense emotional reaction described above, it’s likely that she hasn’t yet mastered the art of calming herself down. This slideshow showcases several different relaxation techniques that you and your child can practice together. Once she learns that she is capable of controlling her anxiety response, she’ll feel more confident going into anxiety provoking situations!
- Don’t reinforce anxious behavior: There are many subtle and not so subtle ways that parents inadvertently reinforce anxious behavior. It can take the form of providing one hundred and one reassurances that there are no giant, Lord of the Rings type spiders lurking under the bed, or allowing a child with social anxiety to spend the evening locked in his room playing video-games rather than interacting with your house-guests. Although in the moment it feels like the kind thing to do, you’re actually doing your child a disservice in the long-term.
- Do reinforce behavior that addresses anxiety: So how do you reinforce appropriate coping? Tell your daughter that once she’s spent an hour with your guests and spoken to three different people, she may then politely excuse herself to play video games. Offer your child one reassurance that there are no giant spiders, and then practice self-soothing behaviors with her. Make sure to pile on the behavior specific praise to let your child know how proud you are of her for using appropriate coping skills.
- Do remember that modeling is important! When your child sees that you are able to cope with their anxiety and your own anxiety in a calm, appropriate manner, they will be more likely to do the same!
- Do take time to care for yourself: Helping a child who struggles with anxiety is emotionally and physically draining. In order to effectively be there for your child, it’s important to make yourself a priority from time to time. It’s not selfish, it’s a necessity! Check out this blog from the Washington Post to learn more about the ins and outs of parental self-care.
- Do seek professional help when needed: How do you know when it’s time to bring your child to a professional? As a general rule, any anxiety that is interfering in your child’s ability to perform his regular activities at school, socially, and/or at home is significant, and should be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. Check out my FAQ about Anxiety to learn more about when it’s time to seek help.
Dr. Scrivani specializes in the Cognitive Behavioral treatment of anxiety and related disorders, behavioral parent training, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York, Florida, and internationally. Call (888) 535-5671 or email [email protected] Visit Dr. Scrivani’s iTherapy Webpage to learn more.