How Can I Help My Child With Anxiety?

The post below was published last year and it is such great content from Sissy, that we thought we would post it again. Some of you read the Technology Tuesday post about 5 Nights at Freddy's and have responded with some concern for children that are now fearful because of seeing some of these images. The post below can help guide you through this time of working through this with your child...

What do I do when she’s afraid and I can tell the thoughts have become looping? 

That she won’t go upstairs to take a shower if I’m not upstairs with her? 

That she won’t go to school for fear of throwing up? 

That she won’t spend the night at a friend’s house? 

If you were to bring your son or daughter to Daystar, these are a few of the places we’d start:

1) Make a worry list.  Here’s an example.  When he’s afraid, the blood in his brain is literally rushing to his amygdala, which controls a fight or flight response.  This also means its not circulating as well in his pre-frontal cortex, which enables executive functioning.  In other words, he is not thinking with the part of his brain that helps him organize his thoughts, differentiate between good and bad, think through consequences, set goals, and control his impulse.  He is thinking in survival mode.  His heart rate elevates.  His autonomic system is on alert.  Basically, he is not reasonable.  (You probably know this much better than we do.)  In order to help him reason, we need to help slow down his nervous system….to come down from a 10 to a 2 or even a 4.

With many of the kids I counsel, I’ll help them come up with a “Worry List”-a list of things they can do to help calm themselves down when they start to get anxious.  Basically, they’re coping skills.  Make one of these lists with your child.  Have them tell you what makes them feel better and more peaceful. 

2) Talk about the worry brain versus smart brain.  Tamar Chansky, in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, outlines this idea to help kids learn to talk themselves out of the irrational thoughts.  Have them tell you what their worry brain is thinking.  Talk through how that “worry brain” can tell us things that aren’t true, and how it exaggerates all little fears into big ones.  Then, introduce them to the idea of a “smart brain”.  In explaining this idea, you’re empowering them to believe that they are smart and can tackle this fear on their own.  With girls, we talk about having the smart brain boss the worry brain back.  With boys, we describe it more as bullying.  For example, her worry brain says, “You can’t go upstairs.  A monster will get you if your mom isn’t there with you.”  The smart brain says, “There are no monsters.  You’ve gone upstairs a million times.  You’ll be fine and you can yell and mom will be up here in a minute.”  It’s important to role play this with them for several different scenarios.  Let them use their own words to argue with their worry brain.  Again, you’re giving them tools to choose reason over irrational thoughts.  This can help them throughout their lives in a variety of situations.

3) Start small.  Therapists call this systematic desensitization.  With your child, you can call it simply setting a goal…or whatever else you can come up with that would be catchy.  Have your child choose something they’re afraid of.  Start small with fears and help them choose something relatively easy to conquer.  Or, with bigger concepts, make each step it’s own goal.  For example, if your child is afraid to spend the night out, work toward that direction.  Have them start with a grandparent or another family member.  First, have them spend the evening until they’re almost ready for bed.  Celebrate that victory and have them practice several times.  Next, have them fall asleep and tell them you’ll pick them up after they do so.  They’ll wake up in their own bed.  Add a little more time in the morning, celebrating each step along the way and giving them time to practice each new skill.

When Melissa and I were writing Modern Parents, Vintage Values, we wrote a chapter based on a parent’s question regarding safety in today’s world.  All of the research says that teaching kids “stranger danger” often makes them more fearful.  The word that all of the research uses repeatedly is empowerment.  You want to empower your child.  You want them to believe they’re strong and competent and brave and can conquer any fear that comes their way.  And you can, too, by the way.  But we’ll save that for a later post…