Helping My Child Break the Grip of Unhealthy Anxiety
If you asked any parent if they want their child to experience anxiety, they would say no. But anxiety isn’t always bad. Healthy anxiety leads us to take positive actions in response to real danger. It makes us drive safely, pay our taxes, and achieve work goals on time. It is unhealthy anxiety that is a problem. Unhealthy anxiety leads us to negative paralysis or panic in response to imaginary danger. That is the kind of anxiety we don’t want our children to experience, the kind that cripples them with fear, worry, or stress. So, how can you as a parent help your child benefit from healthy anxiety while breaking free from the grip of unhealthy anxiety? Here are some tips:
Teach Them to Manage Their Unhealthy Anxiety
The natural instinct of every parent is to shield their children from things that stress them and make them anxious. But trying to eliminate anxiety from your child’s life will do more harm than good. Even if it was possible, a child who grows up without challenges, stresses, obstacles, worries, fears, etc. would be like a chick taken out of its shell without struggling to break free itself. It will be weak. Healthy chicks break out of their own shells. And healthy children are the ones who struggle with their anxiety, learn to tolerate it, and function in spite of it.
The byproduct of a child’s struggle with their anxiety is that it decreases over time. But when parents step in and remove the stressors that trigger their child’s unhealthy anxiety, even though they may feel better in the short term, it reinforces the unhealthy anxiety in the long term so that the anxiety increases over time. If, when something upsets your child, you always swoop in and fix it, that will become their coping mechanism for life: “when I get upset, someone will rescue me.” That’s a terrible coping mechanism because someone won’t always rescue them and their anxiety will control them because they can’t cope. So, instead of trying to eliminate anxiety from your child’s life, help them learn to manage their anxiety and cope with it as best they can. They will be stronger for it.
Empathize, But Don’t Empower Their Unhealthy Anxiety
It is important that you validate your child’s feelings without empowering them. Let your child know that you hear them, that it’s okay, and they’re not alone. Say things like, “I know you are scared and that’s okay, I’m here and we’ll get through this.” Your child will find strength in that attachment bond with you. But validating feelings doesn’t mean agreeing with them. If your child is terrified about going to the dentist, that is a valid fear, but the last thing you want to do is empower that fear and make it stronger. So, listen and empathize, then encourage them to know that they can face that fear, and that you will face it with them.
A bit of practical advice at this point: don’t reinforce your child’s unhealthy anxiety by naming it. Don’t ask things like, “Are you worried that you’re going to fail the math exam?” “Are you scared of getting that tooth filled at the dentist?” That just reinforces the worry or fear. Ask open-ended questions instead like, “How do you feel about the math exam/dentist’s visit?” What you want to avoid is sending the signal to your child that this is something they should be worried about or afraid of. Don’t let them think that they’re right to be anxious/worried/fearful/panicked. That just feeds the anxiety and makes it stronger. Let them know they are heard, but empower them to know that they don’t have to feel the way they do.
Shorten The Anticipation
The longer the anticipation, the worse the unhealthy anxiety will be. The actual event is rarely as bad as we think it will be; it’s the anticipation of the event that is usually worse than the event. For the person with a fear of roller coasters, waiting in line is more stressful than the ride itself (which is over in 2 minutes). Dreading the appointment to get a cavity filled is worse than the actual filling of the cavity (with pain killers so you never feel it). So, it’s a good idea for you as a parent to try to reduce the anticipation of the event that triggers your child’s anxiety. For example, don’t talk about the dentist’s visit every day for two weeks before it happens. All that does is make your child more fearful.
Help Them Face What They Fear
In the counseling world, this is called “exposure therapy.” When we are fearful and anxious about something that is not actually harmful, the only way to reduce the anxiety over it is to build up a tolerance for it, to engage in it and let the anxiety take its natural course. As your child engages and continues to engage with the stressor, their anxiety will be reduced over time. This is called the “habituation curve.” It may not disappear altogether, and it may not go down as quickly as you’d like, but it will drop to the point that it’s not anywhere near the level of stress that it used to be.
Play “What If” With Your Child’s Unhealthy Anxiety
Our thoughts determine our feelings and our behavior. One way to make a significant change is to confront an irrational thought or wrong belief with a valid thought or belief. This is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. When your child expresses anxiety over something, run through a “what if” scenario where you play it out to the logical ending. Your child’s fear or anxiety is based on their expectation of the future outcome. So, ask them what would happen if what they dread did happen? For example, if they’re afraid that if they join Little Leage or Gymnastics, they won’t know anyone, ask them if they think the coach would introduce everyone on the team to one another and if playing ball or learning tumbling routines together might be a great way to get to know the other kids. For some kids, imagining and expecting a positive experience can reduce the anxiety over expecting a negative one. If they have a legitimate concern such as, “I’m afraid you’ll forget to pick me up after practice?” talk through that scenario. “Wouldn’t you go tell the coach that your mom’s not here to get you?” “Wouldn’t he call me and wait with you?” Having a plan for the thing they fear can reduce anxiety.
Model Anxiety Management in Your Own Life
If you are anxious, your child will pick up on that and it will reinforce their own anxiety. If they hear you expressing your worries or fears to your spouse about something you are anticipating, they will receive the unspoken message that even adults are overcome by anxiety, so why should they try to manage theirs. If you are having problems with anxiety, get help for it. It really is something that is manageable and a good counselor can help you get it under control. Let your children see you managing your stress calmly, tolerating it, moving forward and engaging with life and overcoming it. That will be incredibly empowering to them as they struggle with their own stressors in life.
If your child is struggling with unhealthy anxiety, I really encourage you to read more about family therapy and then reach out to us at Christian Counseling Associates for a free consultation to get you started in therapy to overcome the grip of anxiety in your life and/or your child’s life.
Chassity Harper is a Biblical Life Coach with my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Abilene Christian University. She is a member of Delta Kappa International Marriage and Family Therapists. She is trained in post-trauma sand tray and TF-CBT. She is a SYMBIS (Save Your Marriage Before It Starts) facilitator. And she is trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing).