Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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If you have a child with anxiety, don’t make yourself anxious by blaming yourself for the problem. Anxiety in children is common, and multiple factors probably went into making your kid anxious. So now what do you do? Read on.

anxiety in children © fizkes / Shutterstock.com

Help yourself first

If you’ve traveled on a commercial flight, you’ve probably heard flight attendants instruct you about how to deal with the oxygen masks should they drop down. They tell you to put the mask on yourself prior to assisting your child. That’s because if you don’t help yourself first, you won’t be in any condition to help your child.

The same principle applies to anxiety in your kids. You need to tackle your own anxiety prior to trying to help your children. Children learn many of their emotional responses by observing their parents; it makes sense that anxious parents more often end up with anxious children. The nice part of getting rid of your own anxiety first is that this is likely to help your children, as well as give you the resources for assisting with their worries.

Pick and choose the strategies that best fit your problem and personality. However, if the ideas you choose first don’t seem to work, don’t despair. The vast majority of the time, one or more of the techniques that we describe do help.

Consider consulting a mental health professional who’s trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Modeling mellow

If you don’t have a problem with anxiety or if you’ve overcome your excessive worries for the most part, you’re ready to teach by example. Children learn a great deal by watching the people they care about. You may recall a time when your child surprised you by repeating words you thought or wished he hadn’t heard. Trust us, kids see and hear everything.

Therefore, take advantage of every opportunity to model relatively calm behavior and thinking. Don’t invalidate your child’s anxiety by saying it’s a stupid or silly fear. Furthermore, demonstrating complete calm is not as useful as showing how you handle the concern yourself. This table shows some common childhood fears and how you can model an effective response.

Modeling a Better Way
Fear Parental Modeling
Thunderstorms “I understand a thunderstorm is coming tonight. Sometimes, I get a little nervous about them, but I know we’re safe at home. I’m always careful to seek shelter during a thunderstorm. But I know that thunderstorms can’t really hurt you when you’re inside.”
Insects “I used to think that insects were gross, awful, and scary, but now I realize that they’re more afraid of me than I am of them. Insects run away from people when they can. Sometimes, they’re so scared that they freeze. I admit that I still use plenty of tissue to pick them up, and that’s okay. Let me show you how I do it.”
Heights “I sometimes feel a little nervous looking down from high places. Here we are on the top of the Washington Monument. Let’s hold hands and go to the window together. You can’t fall off, and it can’t hurt you. Looking down from heights is kind of fun. The scariness is kind of exciting after you get used to it.”
Being alone (don’t say this unless your child expresses anxiety about feeling safe alone) “Your father’s going on a trip tomorrow. I used to feel afraid staying at home by myself, but I realize that I can take pretty good care of myself and of you. We have a security door, and if anyone tries to get in, we can always call the police. Our dogs are pretty good protection, too. Do you ever get scared? If you do, we can talk about it.”

Lead children through anxiety

Gradual exposure to whatever causes anxiety is one of the most effective ways of overcoming fear. Whether the anxious person is a child or an adult, the strategy is much the same. Therefore, if you want to help your children who already have anxiety, first model coping as we describe in the table. Then, consider using exposure, which involves breaking the feared situation or object into small steps. You gradually confront and stay with each step until your child feels a bit better.

Keep a few things in mind when doing this as a guide for your child:

  • Break the steps down as small as you possibly can. Don’t expect your child to master a fear overnight. It takes time. And children need smaller steps than adults. For example, if you’re dealing with a fear of dogs, don’t expect your child to immediately walk up to and pet a dog on the first attempt. Instead, start with pictures and storybooks about dogs. Then progress to seeing dogs at a distance, behind an enclosed fence. Gradually work up to direct contact, perhaps at a pet store.
  • Expect to see some distress. This is the hard part for parents. No one likes to see their kids get upset. But you can’t avoid having your kids feel modest distress if you want them to get over their anxiety. Sometimes, this part is more than some parents can handle. In those cases, a close friend or relative may be willing to pitch in and help. At the same time, if your child exhibits extreme anxiety and upset, you need to break the task down further or get professional help.
  • Praise your child for any successes. Pay attention to any improvement and compliment your child. However, don’t pressure your child by saying that this shows what a big boy or girl he or she is.
  • Show patience. Don’t get so worked up that your own emotions spill over and frighten your child further. Again, if that starts to happen, stop for a while, enlist a friend’s assistance, or seek a professional’s advice.
The following story shows how parents dealt with their son’s sudden anxiety about water. Kids frequently become afraid when something unexpected happens.
Penny and Stan plan a Caribbean vacation at a resort right on the beach. The brochure describes a family-friendly atmosphere. They purchase a snorkel and diving mask for their 3-year-old, Benjamin, who enjoys the plane ride and looks forward to snorkeling.

When they arrive, the hotel appears as beautiful as promised. The beach beckons, and the ocean water promises to be clear. Penny, Stan, and Benjamin quickly unpack and make their way down to the beach. They walk into the water slowly, delighted by the warm temperature. Suddenly, a large wave breaks in front of them and knocks Benjamin over. Benjamin opens his mouth in surprise, and saltwater gags him. He cries and runs back to the shore, screaming.

Stan immediately pulls Benjamin back into the water. He continues to scream and kick. Penny and Stan spend the rest of the vacation begging Benjamin to go into the ocean again to no avail. The parents end up taking turns babysitting Benjamin while their vacation dream fades.

At home, Benjamin’s fear grows, as untreated fears often do. He fusses in the bath, not wanting any water to splash on his face. He won’t even consider getting into a swimming pool.

Benjamin’s parents take the lead and guide him through exposure. First, on a hot day, they put a rubber, inflated wading pool in the backyard. They fill it and model getting in. Eventually, Benjamin shows a little interest and joins them in the pool. After he gets more comfortable, the parents do a little playful splashing with each other and encourage Benjamin to splash them. He doesn’t notice that his own face gets a little water on it.

Then his parents suggest that Benjamin put just a part of his face into the water. He resists at first, but they encourage him. When he puts his chin into the water, they applaud. Stan puts his face entirely under water and comes up laughing. He says that Benjamin may not be ready to do that. Benjamin proves him wrong. Benjamin and Stan take turns putting their faces into the water and splashing each other. What started out as fear turns into fun.

The parents provide a wide range of gradually increasing challenges over the next several months, including using the mask and snorkel in pools of various sizes. Then they go to a freshwater lake and do the same. Eventually, they take another vacation to the ocean and gradually expose Benjamin to the water there as well.

If Benjamin’s parents had allowed him to play on the beach at the edge of the water instead of insisting that he get back in the water immediately, he may have been more cooperative. They could have then gradually encouraged him to walk in the water while watching for waves. That way, they may have been able to enjoy their vacation. They made the mistake of turning a fear into a power struggle, which doesn’t work very well with children — or, for that matter, with adults.

Exorcize anxiety through exercise

Exercise burns off excess adrenaline, which fuels anxiety. All kids obviously need regular exercise, and studies show that most don’t exercise enough. Anxious kids may be reluctant to engage in intense physical activities like hiking, jogging, biking, or organized sports. They may feel inadequate or even afraid of negative evaluation by others.

Yet it may be more important for anxious kids to participate in sports or other physical activities for two reasons. First, these activities provide them with important mastery experiences. Although they may feel frustrated and upset at first, they usually experience considerable pride and a sense of accomplishment as their skills improve. Second, aerobic activity directly decreases anxiety.

The challenge is to find an activity that provides your child with the greatest possible chance of at least modest success. Consider the following:

  • Swimming: An individual sport that doesn’t involve balls thrown at your head or collisions with other players. Swimmers compete against themselves, and many swim teams reward most participants with ribbons, whether they come in first or sixth.
  • Hiking: This can be done with organized groups or as a family outing. Difficulty can be low, medium, or intense. Kids can learn about how to handle weather emergencies and what supplies they need. They can acquire mastery skills by learning about dangerous plants and creatures.
  • Track and field: An individual sport that has a wide variety of different skill possibilities. Some kids are fast and can run short dashes. Others discover that they can develop the endurance to run long distances. Still others can throw a shot put.
  • Tennis: A low-contact and relatively safe sport. Good instruction can make most kids adequate tennis players.
  • Martial arts: Good for enhancing a sense of competence and confidence. Many martial arts instructors have great skill for working with uncoordinated, fearful kids. Almost all kids can experience improvements and success with martial arts.
  • Dance: A sport that includes many variations, from ballet to square dancing. Musically inclined kids often do quite well with dance classes.
In other words, find something for your kids to do that involves physical activity. They can benefit in terms of decreased anxiety, increased confidence, and greater connections with others. Don’t forget to include family bike rides, camping trips, and walks. Model the benefits of lifelong activity and exercise.

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