Anxiety runs in my family. When I was in my twenties, I experienced periods of significant anxiety. The unexpected loss of my father triggered feelings of helplessness. If life can change in instant and without warning, how can we ever really feel secure? The difficult thing about anxiety is that it often comes with unwanted, intrusive thoughts. When the worry kicks in, it can feel like all hope is lost.
Fortunately, I knew how to confront those intrusive thoughts and gain control over my anxiety. Using deep breathing, thought stopping, and positive re-framing, I learned to kick worry to the curb when it reared its head.
Cut to today. One of my kids is a worrier. While my own experience with anxiety feels like a distant memory, she has her own sources of worry. Severe, repeated episodes of croup and asthma leave her gasping for air and me making desperate calls for help in the middle of the night. While I do my best to remain calm under these circumstances, watching my child struggle to breathe is terrifying.
We work on breaking the worry cycle together. We talk about ways to help the happy brain speak louder than the worry brain, we use a worry box to get the feelings out and put them away, and we acknowledge feelings as they arise. Together, we take control over her worries so that she feels less overwhelmed.
And here’s the thing: These tricks really work. In fact, a new study shows that even when anxiety runs in families, parents can reduce anxiety in their children with a change in their parenting style and a few strategies…
1. Confront the source of anxiety. Parents are fixers by nature and often we try to jump in save kids from worry. If a child is afraid of dogs, for example, we walk on the other side of the street to avoid a dog. What we should be doing, is labeling the anxiety, talking about triggers, and working though them. Instead of running away from every we dog we encounter, we should ask the owner about the dog and take a step-by-step approach to increasing comfort. The biggest struggle with childhood anxiety is that kids feel powerless. They feel incompetent to cope with their worries so they engage in avoidance behaviors and/or become highly reactive. The key is to build your child’s confidence in her ability to cope with her worries, and that begins with confronting them.
2. Empower your kids to conquer their anxieties. Kids need specific tools to work through their worries. In using a worry box, for example, kids learn to label and talk though their worries before putting them away for the night. Self talk is another great strategy for kids. In learning to “boss back” their worry brains, kids can actually talk their way out of the worry cycle. They can replace those pesky intrusive thoughts with positive, confident ones, instead. The best time to practice strategies to reduce anxiety is when kids are calm. I often use those quiet evening moments with my daughter to practice our own self talk statements. “I won’t get lost; I know how to find a helper,” is one of our favorites.
3. Show your kids how to cope well with anxiety. When my daughter experiences breathing difficulties, I make sure to use a quiet calming voice while explaining exactly how I will help her though it. Even though I tend to feel every bit as scared as she does in those moments, I use my own calming techniques to show her that we can work through those stressful moments together. This helps her regain a feeling of calm.
If you do have anxiety, trying to hide it from your kids can backfire. Kids tend to pick up on our emotions, and your anxious thoughts can transfer to your kids. It’s best to talk about it in an age appropriate way and show them your healthy coping strategies. Talk about what you do to reduce your own worries and when anxiety strikes, show them. Show them how to do deep breathing exercises and any other strategies you use.
When kids see that anxiety can be overcome, they build the necessary skills and confidence to reduce their own anxiety.
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