Parenting tips to manage anxiety in young ones

If you have read my previous article you will have read about the different animal styles of parenting. Did you resonate with one of those styles? We also looked at the positive ways of parenting in a Dolphin or St. Bernard style. One way to move toward these behaviours is to look at the area of reassurance, avoidance and exposure.

It is a parent’s natural instinct to try and reassure. To a point this is beneficial, but too much reassurance could bring some unexpected issues. Let me give you some examples.

Let’s say you have a 9-year-old daughter. She doesn’t want to go to school, she’s really upset, she’s crying and not sleeping. She’s worried about the girls in her class, she thinks they don’t like her. You are devastated and stressed, and you have a natural instinct to want to protect her. So you say to her – it’s ok, you can take the rest of the week off school. She’s so relieved, she’s so happy and so are you! Until Monday…what happens? She’s even more upset and anxious and she wants you to keep her back from school again. Unfortunately, even though you meant well you have been drawn into the cycle of anxiety.


Your 10-year-old son is worried that his dad is going to die in a bus crash. He is so distressed and he keeps asking you if dad is going to be ok. Every time, you reassure him and say “It’s fine, daddy is safe, nothing will happen.” For a moment, you can see that he experiences relief, but the next morning before you take him to school, he asks you the same thing. Again, you tell him everything is going to be fine.

What’s happened in both of the instances, is that you have provided reassurance. You have become the savior for your young person, removing them from their perceived fear. What happens as you will notice, is that this relief is short-lived. More and more they begin to rely on you and seek reassurance. Your child does not learn self-efficacy, they don’t learn that they can overcome challenging situations and our lives are full of changing situations.


Well then – what should we do instead?

This is a balancing act. We don’t want to turn them into ostriches, to shut down their emotions. We also don’t want to push them too far too soon. Here are some suggestions of how we might find this balance.


Avoiding giving reassurance:


  • Sometimes we can get cornered by our child who wants to keep talking over and over about what is worrying them. It’s tempting them to reassure.


  • Perhaps they even ask you to reassure them or to use the phrase they’ve taught you to use so that they feel safe again.


  • The key is to listen and validate not fix.


  • We need to teach them that although unpleasant, the anxiety will pass with time and patience.


  • You will realise that with time and space to reflect without judgment, they are capable of coming to their own solutions.


Exposure not avoidance:

  • If your child is nervous about going to that dance club on a Saturday morning but they want to, build up to it. Perhaps you can go and sit in and watch one day and then after that, maybe you can organize that they can pop in for half an hour of it.


  • We call this exposure – we want to build up to the feared event in small steps like a ladder. This breaks down tasks into manageable steps. We don’t want to overwhelm the child but instead encourage them to make a move towards their feared situation.


Talk about feelings


  • Children and young people look to us to help them navigate the world.


  • They need us to help them to talk them through what is happening.


  • A helpful way to do this is to use words to explain how they are feeling. I think about that sometimes as being a bit like an emotional narrator, you’re almost narrating what is happening for them.


  • For a young child who says “I have such a sore tummy and I can’t sleep”. They haven’t yet learned that there are words attached to these experiences and that they are likely feeling anxious. So you could ask “I wonder if you’re feeling a bit anxious? Is everything ok at school”?


  • Teens- Sometimes using the “emotion” word is so validating – “sounds like that really upset you”, “I can see that you’re really anxious about that”

Acknowledge their braveness


  • Children need reinforcement to keep good behaviors going. Acknowledge when they have been brave, celebrate their successes (as well as making room for times that they couldn’t quite get there.)

We know that anxiety is a normal human emotion, but it becomes a problem when it gets in the way of what you and your whanau want to do. Hopefully, you have these 4 new skills to try out. You might not get it the first time, but with practice, they feel like more natural skills for your parenting toolbox.

In the event that you feel that you need some additional support there are a few pathways you can go through. The first port of call can be your GP, and they can also direct you to any public funding should you need this. There are some options for time-limited funded therapy for young people. The second is to contact a therapist on your own. This will often be privately funded. It is important to investigate the qualifications of those you are seeking help from.


About the Author

Dr Victoria Thompson is a registered clinical psychologist. Victoria currently works in private practice in Auckland, specializing in several different areas including eating disorders and couples’ therapy. She is particularly passionate about helping people to build self-esteem and develop self-compassion. She has a keen interest in forensic psychology, dating and attachment styles, obsessive compulsive disorder and disordered eating and body image.

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