5 Easy Ways to Help Your Anxious Child (and Your Anxious Self)

Worry and anxiety can eat away at kids’ comfort and confidence, especially at stressful transition times like going back to school or to summer camp. Here are 5 helpful tips to ease the mind of an anxious child.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #168

Tip #3: Remind them that what revs up must slow down.

Worry comes with physical feelings: a pounding heart, lightheadedness, a flip-flop in the stomach. These feelings can amplify an already scary situation, like doing a math problem on the board, facing a cafeteria’s worth of rowdy kids, or getting called on unexpectedly in class. Uncomfortable sensations might make them think, “I’m going to throw up!” or “Something’s wrong with me!”

If physical sensations make your kid think something is horribly wrong, do some training. Bring on the symptoms on purpose in order to get used to them. Run up your stairs together to make your hearts pound, swing on the swings to feel a little dizzy, hang upside down from the monkey bars to feel the blood rush to your heads. Have them focus on the sensations--30 seconds to a minute should do it. Then, when you’re done, notice how quickly you both get back to feeling normal. Usually just a minute or two. Your kid will probably even bounce back before you.

Now, kids might say, “But that wasn’t scary--I only felt dizzy because we spun around a bunch.” To which you answer, “Yes, and when you feel this way before you read aloud in class, it’s just because you’re feeling anxious. It doesn’t mean you’re sick and have to go to the nurse. See how your dizzy feelings went away on their own pretty quickly after we stopped spinning? They’ll go away on their own during or after reading aloud, too.”

In short, teach them they don’t have to be afraid of their physical feelings. They’re uncomfortable, but it’s just anxiety--nothing more--and they go away pretty quickly.

Tip #4: Wean them off unhelpful rituals.

If your child has more pregame traditions than the most superstitious of major leaguers, or they can’t brush their teeth without turning the water on and off four times, it’s time for an experiment.

Suggest seeing what happens without the ritual. They will look at you as if you just suggested wearing their underwear over their pants. But gently persist. Be curious, not harsh. Acknowledge it feels wrong not to do the ritual, but if they insist that tapping their pencil seven times is the only way to make things turn out okay, encourage them to put their theory to the test. The tapping or counting or nodding or whatever may be getting the credit for maintaining calm and safety when they were handling their life just fine all along.

Now, if you are part of the ritual--for instance, if your child begs you to tuck them in exactly symmetrically or wash your shoes whenever you come in the house--bite the bullet and stop. Why? Because if you participate, you send the message that something bad will happen without the ritual. Inadvertently, you tell them that they need the ritual to get through the day--that they can’t handle things without it. Brace yourself for indignation and tears, but also be supportive. Understand that the ritual is important to them and that they will feel worse without it in the short term. But in the long term, it’s more important to learn that they’re safe and capable even without you saying “good night” in just the right tone of voice, or giving them exactly three hugs before they get on the school bus.

Tip #5: Hear them out.

In other words, for at least a few minutes a day, offer fewer directions, fewer suggestions, and less advice. In solidarity, parents will sometimes ask, “But what can I change to help my kid?” This is awesome. You certainly are not at fault for causing your kid’s anxiety, but offering to change some of your own behaviors can give you more power to alleviate it.

You certainly are not at fault for causing your kid’s anxiety, but offering to change some of your own behaviors can give you more power to alleviate it.

One way may be to listen to how you speak to your child. A huge percentage of our communication is telling our kids to do something, to stop doing something, or to help them do something. We give directions, suggestions, and advice. But if your kid is anxiety-prone, this can all come across as criticism.

And criticism pops up in unlikely places. Sometimes questions come across as criticism: “Don’t you want to start your homework?” “Why don’t you add some red Legos to your tower?” Teachable moments sound like a quiz: “Can you read that sign?” “What color is this?” Sometimes even compliments sound like criticisms: “Good work--we’re chipping away. We still have a long way to go, though.”

The solution isn’t to let kids run wild and directionless. You still need to run your household and make sure homework gets done, but for a few minutes a day, bite your tongue and let them take the lead. Think less pressure. Less direction. Less intensity. Just reflect what they’re saying and show that you’re listening. “What’s happening in this magic potion of yours?” is different than “Here, let’s add some baking soda to your potion.” Remember, they take the lead. “I’m excited to hear about your day,” is different than “What did you learn in school today?” For at least a few minutes, we’re not quizzing.

Reflect back what they’re saying rather than giving advice or solving their age-appropriate  problem for them. “You sound nervous about school tomorrow,” may not feel like you’re doing anything, but you are: you’re showing that you hear them loud and clear, which is way different than, “There’s nothing to be nervous about.”

Anxiety often comes down to feeling incapable. So when you stop giving advice, giving direction, or offering suggestions for a few minutes and let them take the lead, they feel more capable and in control. Then you can go back to making sure they did their homework.

To sum it all up, anxiety is about uncertainty: Am I capable? Can I handle things? By working with them to prepare for and then face their fears, but stopping short of doing things for them, you build their certainty in their own confidence and capabilities. The result? A confident kid and, eventually, a confident adult.

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.