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Parenting Children with Anxiety: How do I know if my child’s worry is excessive?

By Kaylee Trottier, PhD, Psychology Resident, Children’s Care, Rapid City

A child may be experiencing excessive worry if they demonstrate excessive uneasiness that is out of proportion to the situation when compared to children of same age. The following is a short list of “red flag” behaviors.

  • Easily distressed or agitated when in a stressful situation
  • Uses repetitive “what if” questions and they remain distressed when the “what if” questions are answered
  • Headaches, stomachaches, and/or regularly too sick to go to school
  • Worrying about their future
  • Experiences disruptions of sleep, difficulty falling asleep, frequent nightmares, and/or difficulty sleeping alone
  • Perfectionism, self-critical, and/or very high standards for oneself
  • Overly-responsible, people pleasing, excessively concerned that others are upset with him/her
  • Often unnecessarily apologizing
  • Disruption/avoidance of family functions, difficulty with going to school, friend’s houses, religious activities, family gatherings, errands, and/or vacation
  • Excessive time spent consoling child about distress with ordinary situations, excessive time coaxing child to do normal activities- homework, hygiene, meals.

When speaking to children about anxiety, it is important to convey that the child is not alone, that many children struggle with anxiety and EVERY child experiences worry from time to time. It is also important to convey optimism that with the right plan, anxious children can learn to overcome anxiety—stop unnecessary thoughts and learn to face their fears one step at a time.

Rather than reassuring (telling them that everything will be ok) worried children, we should begin to teach children how to manage their anxiety. Developing an awareness of their own worry may give your child a sense of control.

Tips for parents

  • The first step is recognizing and attending to your own mood and anxiety. Children will pay attention to your mood, so stay calm (your calm mood will calm them). Parents, ask for help! Anxiety disorders are one of the most treatable mental health conditions, and early intervention can prevent a lifetime of agony. Highly effective, short-term treatments are available. Research suggests that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy are the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders.
  • It is important that you have the same expectations of your anxious child that you would of another child (to go to birthday parties, school, and sleepovers). However, it may need to occur at a slower pace. You can help your child breakdown big tasks into smaller steps that your child can accomplish (first go to the party with your child and agree to stay as long as your child is interacting with others, next time stay for the first half hour). You can also help act out possible ways your child could handle a problematic situations. Practicing makes children more self-confident and more likely to try the strategy when your child is alone. If you make exceptions you might enable your child’s tendency to avoid activities. Long term avoidance of activities will increase your child’s anxiety. There will likely be a growing number of activities that your child will avoid.
  • Develop your child’s sense of personal strength. Praise your child for facing challenges and trying something new. Find opportunities where your child can show they are good at something (music, art, sports, and chores).

  • Let your child learn to do things on their own. It is best not to take over or do it for your child. While this might help your child feel better right now, the message your child is getting is that you don’t believe your child can do it. Your child may begin to believe this about themselves.
  • Try not to get caught continually reassuring your child that everything will be okay. Teach your child to answer their own questions and provide the reassurance to his/her self. You can model how you think through and respond to your child’s questions.
  • Help your child handle their own feelings. It is okay to let your child experience some anxiety. Your child needs to know that anxiety is not dangerous but something that they can deal with. Let your child know all feelings are okay and it is acceptable to say what you feel. Anxious children sometimes have a hard time expressing strong emotions like anger or sadness because they may be fearful that other people will be angry with them. It is also important to take time to yourself. You are modeling for your child that everyone needs some time to themselves.
  • Don’t pass on your fears. Try to keep your fears to yourself and as best you can present a positive or at least neutral description of a situation. It is not helpful to laugh or minimize your child’s fear. But humor does help one deal with the world, so show your child how to laugh at life’s mistakes.
  • Don’t confuse anxiety with other types of inappropriate behavior. It is very important to set both expectations and have limits and consequences for inappropriate behavior. Parents who have reasonable expectations of their children, clear and consistent limits, consequences for behavior, and complete love and acceptance of their child have the most competent, self-confident, and happy children.

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