Anxiety is not just a part of childhood, it’s also something that can be learned and overcome. In Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, a childhood anxiety disorder specialist examines all manifestations of anxiety in children—from social anxiety to Tourette’s Syndrome to hair-pulling—and guides parents through a proven program to help bring their kids back to emotional safety.
The most important thing to understand about anxiety is that it’s a real biological response to a perceived threat. It is the brain’s way of keeping you safe, and your child needs to learn that it is normal and healthy.
When children are afraid, their brain triggers a natural fight-or-flight reaction that causes physical changes such as sweaty palms and a faster heart rate. In some cases, this is a good thing. For example, if you were being chased by a lion, your body would react by giving you the energy to run away from it. But if your child is worried about going to school, getting a bad grade on a test, or being around a dog, the reactions are not useful and can be very destructive.
Children often try to avoid the things that scare them, like dogs, school, or airplanes. They may also develop a fear of germs or public speaking. If your child refuses to go to parties, throws tantrums before doctor or dentist appointments, and is always sick on Sunday nights, they are likely suffering from severe anxiety. This condition can also cause headaches or stomachaches of no medical origin, difficulty sleeping, and an inability to concentrate at school or work.
It’s important to note that many of these fears are rooted in childhood experiences and trauma. If your child has been traumatized by a scary event, they are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than children who have not had these types of experiences. But the key is not to avoid what your child is afraid of, but to confront those things head on and slowly work through them.
Parents need to be a calming presence in these situations, as anxious children often look to their parents for guidance. It’s the same reason that babies and toddlers cry when they fall down; they are looking to their parent for a signal of how to react. In addition to reassurance, it can be helpful for parents to practice calming techniques themselves.
Help your child to calm their mind and body by breathing deeply. Teach them to count to five as they breathe in and out, which slows the brain’s activity. Counting helps to redirect their focus from what might happen to what is happening right now. You can also sit with them and offer calm physical reassurance, like holding their hand or having a cuddle if it’s possible.
Remind them that it’s okay to feel nervous, but help them to remember that if they keep trying, they will eventually succeed. This can be difficult for some parents, as they will have to watch their child struggle, but it is essential to breaking the rescuing habit.