Anxiety in children and teens is on the rise. More than 1 in 20 children in the U.S. experience serious anxiety. While occasional anxiety is part of normal life, children and teens with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive, persistent worry about everyday situations. The disorder causes biochemical changes in the body and has a bearing on a child or teen’s future behavior.
Busy parents trying to manage a family on the go need a way to quickly and effectively help their child cope with anxiety. Stable, supportive, secure parent-child and parent-teen relationships are the most important elements to resolving experiences of anxiety. Parents’ non-judgmental, empathic responses help children and teens resolve these highly tension-producing experiences.
Common anxiety disorders range from generalized anxiety to separation anxiety, panic disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Parents first need to understand each episode’s meaning and to consider it a message — and even an invitation — to empathic understanding.
To do so, here are five steps that provide parents a way to quickly and effectively approach their child’s anxiety:
1. Step back. Parents need to first say to themselves, “Slo-o-o-w down. Take your time. Don’t rush forward. Breathe deeply. Consider what to say or do, if anything.” Without distancing themselves from their emotional response, parents often make rash decisions. If they never pause, they never allow emotions to subside and thinking to begin. By resisting the impulse to burst in with a quick solution, parents model for their child a calm manner that will help ease the child’s own distress.
2. Self-reflect. Self-reflecting allows parents to observe themselves objectively and think about the genesis of their feelings, motives and actions in response to their child’s behavior. When parents are busy, this step is often left out, but in the long run it saves time because self-understanding then leads to an understanding of their reactions to their child. Self-reflecting allows parents to discover how their past experiences of anxiety affect their present approach to parenting.
3. Understand the child’s mind. Most parents can recognize their child’s moods, but they need time to figure out the reason for a particular mood. Anxious behavior is meaningful and it’s important for parents to examine their ideas about what elicited it with their child. This shows empathy, and when the child or teen feels understood, it can help in containing the emotions and thinking them through.
4. Understand your child’s development. When you set expectations for your child, be sure they reflect the child’s developmental level, which may fall behind or step ahead of his or her chronological age. Watch for the development of individual capacities and interpersonal skills — impulse control, effective communication, empathy, and autonomy. Being critical of a child for not completing tasks expected for his or her chronological age creates anxiety and lowers self-esteem.
5. Problem-solve. Discuss and create alternative ways for coping with anxiety that lead to resolving the internal torment and pain. The four previous steps leading to problem solving may seem linear, but parents may need to go back and forth among them. This is truly significant because the earlier steps bear directly on the process of problem solving. When children learn that their parents realize the underlying problems behind their original anxiety, they become more open to hearing what their parents have to say. It helps them to feel understood.
This 5-step approach provides busy parents not only a structured way to help their anxious child or teen, but it also offers a vision of hope. It’s an avenue for parents to better understand their children at all ages and developmental levels, firming up and fortifying the parent-child and parent-teen relationships.
One word of caution: If the child’s anxiety isn’t just occasional and fleeting, parents will want to discuss this emotional trouble with a healthcare expert.
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Laurie Hollman, PhD, is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy a unique practice that covers the life span. Dr. Hollman is widely published on topics relevant to parents and children, including juried articles and chapters in The International Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation, and Ihe Inner World of the Mother. She is the author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence – Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, winner of the Mom’s Choice Award, and the Busy Parent’s Guides series of books: The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children Teens – The Parental Intelligence Way, and The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anger in Children and Teens – The Parental Intelligence Way (Familius, Aug. 1, 2018). Learn more at lauriehollmanphd.com.