By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Helping your anxious child
Many children suffer from anxiety. Some are generally anxious and worried, while some feel nervous only about specific issues or situations. For young children, it is normal to have transient fears of the dark, of monsters under the bed, of dogs, etc. Being calm, reassuring, and never belittling is the best way to handle these commonplace fears and anxieties. You can often help your child get more comfortable by talking about the feared topic, reading books or watching shows about it. However, sometimes these fears grow, becoming what is called a phobia (an irrational and extreme fear that leads to avoidance of the thing or situation.) When a phobia develops, it is best to get your child to a behavioral therapist who can help desensitize them to the feared thing, teach them coping skills, and provide you with ideas for supporting your child.
If your youngster tends to be worried or anxious in general, take some time to notice if there are any patterns: are they nervous at birthday parties or other gatherings? Do they tend to be perfectionistic and worry about not doing things “right?” Whatever you discover, previewing and reviewing feared situations can be very helpful. Familiarity breeds comfort. For example, if your child is nervous about going somewhere he’s never been, talk through what to expect, and if possible, show pictures ahead of time. If she’s scared about a performance or recital, talk through what she’s worried will happen, and help put it in perspective (e.g., if you forget your routine, you can look to see what others are doing and get back on track, everyone makes mistakes, we won’t be mad, it’s just a short time and then it will be over, etc.) Afterwards, ask what was best and worst about the situation, and if your child has ideas on how to make it easier next time.
Helping your child calm down physically can also reduce their jitters or tension (this is great for adults too!) One simple technique is to breathe very slowly and deeply in through one’s nose, and then exhale slowly out through one’s mouth, repeating this at least three times. You can also try muscle relaxation: have your child make fists, or squeeze their shoulders up to their ears, and then completely relax those muscles. Slowing down our movements deliberately so that we’re not moving at a nervous or frantic pace is also helpful. Explain to your child that when our body feels jittery and worried, our mind does too – calming down the body can help calm down the mind.
Model a calm and relaxed approach yourself when possible, as children tend to pick up on parents’ anxiety and learn to be fearful themselves. If you are nervous about something, model thinking it through and taking steps to feel better. For example, if you are anxious about taking crowded public transportation, use your own calming strategies to help you appear cool and collected. If you can’t help but show your anxiety, you can acknowledge that crowded trains make you nervous, but also explain that doing your calming strategies and standing near the door helps you, and that you feel glad and accomplished afterwards. Most importantly, remember that if you have any doubts about whether your child’s anxiety is excessive, it is always appropriate to bring it up with your pediatrician or a child psychologist to discuss whether professional intervention could be helpful.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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