According the the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40 million adults in America suffer with a form of anxiety. Children are not immune to anxiety, although they may have a hard time labeling what they are feeling.
Is your child stressed out or anxious? Do they dread going to certain places? Do they procrastinate, or have nervous habits, or get stomachaches? Do they resist activities by acting up? Do they focus only on the negative and what might go wrong? These are all signs of anxiety.
How can we as parents help our children through this?
First, be compassionate. If you have ever felt nervous about something you can identify with what your child is feeling. Even though our kids’ anxiety sometimes comes up in the most inconvenient ways (nausea, avoidance behavior, last minute crises), we need to take a step back and remember that parents are the protectors of children. We also, in a sense, represent the Lord to our kids. We are their first mentors and disciplers. So, even if we are worried about getting to work late, having a mess on our hands, or embarrassment, we also need to consider the experience that our child is having in this moment. We must pray for wisdom: does this child need “tough love” right now to push through -- or a timeout and a listening ear? Most likely they need our reassurance, but we should not dismiss their fears. It can be a tricky balance.
Second, empower the child. Anxiety is not alway as simple as “mind over matter,” but sometimes mental tools and strategies can be helpful. Encourage your child to do their best and focus on the positives. Remind them that you will be here for them no matter what. If they are worried about their performance, walk them through what “doing your best” will look like. For example, there is only one winner in a race, but the rest of the runners are still successful and accomplished if they have trained, practice, and persevered. They have overcome their own obstacles and perhaps beaten their own records. This is worth celebrating! While you are giving your child this pep talk, check your own motives. Have you been pressuring your child to perform, compete, dominate? If so, pray and surrender your child’s future to the Lord once again.
If you have techniques that help you when you are anxious, share them with your child. Simple things like taking a deep breath, repeating a calming phrase or verse, or distracting yourself from obsessive thoughts can be helpful. They may sound simple, but they are not necessarily things that a child would come up with on their own. Practice them together until they can do them independently.
Third, talk to their teachers. Explain the strategies you are using, so that your teacher can reinforce them and possibly report back to you any progress or problems. This can create a positive cycle of improvement, or at least provide you with more information that you can use as you go to the next step.
If these changes in approach do not seem to bring any results, you might consider therapy. Child therapists, using play therapy or therapy animals, can get your child to reveal the troubling thoughts they haven’t mentioned to you. Sometimes it is surprising, such as a bad dream they didn’t even want to revisit, or an experience that they didn’t want to relive. Once they speak about it, the therapist and parents can address the issue.
Therapists can also help you identify when your child may need some further help such as medicine. Some forms of anxiety are more deep-seated and beyond the realm of behavioral therapy. Naturopaths might help you consider helpful modifications to your child’s diet, or ways your child get better sleep.
When you see signs of stress and anxiety in your child, do not ignore it, hoping it will go away. Talk to other adults in their life to see what may be causing it, and be your child’s closest advocate. Having the support of family goes a long way toward healing.
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