How to help kids deal with anxiety

Is your child anxious and worried? Here’s how to respond in a positive, helpful way

15 July 2019
5 minute read

Happy family laying on bed

No parent likes to see their child worried, stressed or anxious. The good news is that your response and support can make a big difference. Here’s what you can do to help.

Explain what anxiety isLet the child know that feeling anxious or scared is normal. We all feel like that sometimes. It’s the brain’s way of helping us avoid danger and keeping us safe. Sometimes, we worry more than necessary. And some people are more prone to worry than other people are. It can exhibit in your body (shakes, tummy aches, and so on) and in your thoughts. The good news is that it is something we can deal with, and that you will try and help them manage it.

Accept their feelings If a child says, “I’m scared,” don’t jump in with, “No you’re not!” or “Don’t be silly!” Help your child talk about their feelings. Listen. Feeling loved and understood helps lessen the anxiety.

Feeling loved and understood helps lessen the anxiety

If your child is terrified about going to the clinic for an injection, you need to empathise with their feelings and help them understand them. So, you might say, “I know you are scared and I understand that. It’s okay to be scared, but this injection is important to keep you safe. I will be there to hold your hand and you will get through this.”

Help them manage the anxietyIt’s tempting to try and avoid situations that might trigger your child’s anxiety. That’s impossible. And avoidance makes things worse in the long run. It’s better to support your child in facing their fears. You can help by approaching the fear in small increments and building up the child’s confidence. So, if your child suffers from social anxiety, you can’t just let them stay in his room alone forever. Of course not. But neither are you going to drop them off at a huge party!  Start with what they can handle - maybe an arrangement to take one friend for a milkshake after school, with you in attendance. Then build up to slightly longer playdates, perhaps first at your house, then at the friend’s house with you, then alone. Small positive steps build confidence and self-belief.

Don’t reinforce the fearsSay your child fell off a slide and hurt themselves, and their now scared of the play equipment. When you’re next at the park, their anxiety might set off your worry about how they will respond. Your tone and body language inadvertently give the impression that, hey, mom’s nervous, so should I be! Keep a calm, neutral tone and approach and convey confidence.

Don’t make promises you can’t keepIt’s tempting to offer assurances - “You are going to ace that test!” or “Of course no one is going to laugh at you” or “The dentist doesn’t hurt” - but you should never promise something that you don’t have control over. If the worst happens, your child loses faith and trust in you and is more anxious.

Be positive, but realistic. “The dentist is going to check your teeth. It only takes a few minutes. If they need to do anything else, they will make it as quick and painless as possible. I’ll be in the room with you and I’ll hold your hand the whole time if you want me to.” This way, you are able to assure him that you are not putting him in a situation he can’t handle.

Help them talk it throughPerhaps your child has separation anxiety and worries that you won’t fetch them on time. Talk through their anxious-making scenario. “I always try to be on time, but if there was a lot of traffic and I was late to fetch from swimming, what could you do?” Help them think and talk through options - they might go and speak to the swimming teacher, ask them to call you, or whatever. Having a plan can make a child less anxious.

But don’t overdo it!Too much talk can make things worse, especially if you ask leading questions like, “Are you nervous about the party? Why? What do you think is going to happen? Is there anyone you are scared of?” If they wouldn’t nervous to start with, they might be now! If you want to ask, rather say something more neutral, like, “How are you feeling about the party?”

Prepare them (but not too early!)Another good tip is not to start the worry too early - it tends to just get worse. That child having the injection? Better to let her know half an hour in advance than a week in advance and have her fretting for a week.

Stay in the nowPeople who are anxious tend to spend a lot of time worrying about the future. They’re concerned with, “What if…” scenarios. When anxiety strikes, it’s helpful to bring the child into the present. Mindfulness techniques like meditation and breathing can help bring the child into the now and relax body and mind. Try these:

Breathe easy There are many different techniques for relaxation breathing. Here’s one to try. Ask the child to hold up one hand with the fingers open. Using the index finger of the other hand, trace the shape of the hand slowly from thumb to pinky. Breath in on the upward stroke, out on the downwards stroke. Repeat on the other hand.

Release tension We tend to tense our muscles when we’re nervous or scared. Ask the child to tense a specific muscle group (eg, feet and legs) for the count of five. Then release and notice the difference. Work toe to head, or head to toe.

Get helpAll children get scared and nervous sometimes. But if your child’s struggle with anxiety is affecting sleep, school, self-esteem or socialising, it’s a good idea to speak to a professional like a therapist. It’s also worth speaking to the teacher or school, to alert them to the issue, and ask their help in monitoring and managing it, and giving your child support and understanding in potentially stressful situations. Most importantly, let your child know you love, accept, understand and support them.

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