Parenting your child with anxiety
Parenting is hard. Parenting a child who has anxiety can be even more challenging, leaving you feeling drained and unsure of the best approach. Here are some things you can do to effectively support your child (and yourself!) when they are struggling with high levels of anxiety.
Validate your child’s feelings. Instead of jumping into problem-solving mode when your child is in distress, first take a moment to pause and really try to understand how they are feeling. Then reflect their feelings back to them. Let them know that their feelings make sense and are ok. This could sound like “You’re feeling really afraid” or “It’s understandable that you’re feeling scared right now.”
Encourage your child to face hard things. Help your child gradually face things that feel scary in order for them to learn that they can handle them. You can help your child break down their fear into smaller steps.
Be strategic with your attention: When it comes to your child’s behaviors, the ones you pay the most attention to will increase. If you put a lot of attention on your child’s anxious/avoidant behaviors, you will see more of these behaviors. Instead, try to give lots of attention and praise when your child demonstrates brave behaviors, even if they seem small.
Stop doing things for your child. Parents of children with anxiety often try to buffer or prevent their child’s anxiety by doing things for them, such as speaking for them in public or doing their homework for them. This makes the child feel better in the short-term but actually grows their anxiety in the long-term. It also teaches them to rely on you as a parent. Practice slowly pulling back on and eventually removing these behaviors, one at a time (no need to rip the bandaid!). Be prepared for your child to have strong reactions at first until they eventually adjust, and their brain learns that they can handle each thing on their own.
Supporting your child who has anxiety requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to keep practicing strategies.
Here are some important things you can do for yourself as you support your child:
- Practice mindfulness: Give your brain a break from worrying about the future or past for your child by bringing it back to the present. Practice being present throughout the day and particularly in the presence of your child. Put down your phone, take a slow breath in and out, and use your senses to focus on your surroundings: notice the five things you can see, four things you can hear, three you can touch, two you can smell, and one you can taste. When distracting and discouraging thoughts come into your head (and they will because you are human!), notice them and gently move them aside, bringing your attention back to the sensations. You can practice mindfulness alone and with your child anytime during the day: in the morning, at meal time, or before bed.
- Don’t worry alone: It can be very lonely when your child is struggling with anxiety. Others around you – family, teachers, neighbors, may not recognize that your child is dealing with anxiety or know how to support. Let in a few trusted people and be direct about what feels helpful to you (e.g., giving you some periodic respite, lending a listening ear, etc.) and what does not feel helpful (e.g., problem-solving). The road to recovery is bumpy, and the tribe you create can help you weather the bumps.
While initially it may feel awkward to implement these strategies, they become easier and more comfortable with practice. You won’t get it right every time and that’s ok and, in fact, a natural part of building new habits. When you stumble – and you will – the best bet is to go easy on yourself and see if you can learn something from the experience. And of course try again tomorrow!
Mona Potter, MD is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist and is co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of InStride Health, an innovative virtual outpatient program that serves children and adolescents (and their families) diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. She also serves as Associate Training Director for the MGH/McLean Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Program, Senior consultant to the McLean School Consultation Service, and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, part time, at Harvard Medical School. Prior to co-founding InStride, Dr. Potter served as the Medical Director of the McLean Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Services (including McLean Anxiety Mastery Program, McLean School Consultation Service, and McLean Child and Adolescent Outpatient DBT Program) and served on the Executive Committee of the McLean Institute of Technology in Psychiatry (ITP).
Kathryn Boger, PhD, ABPP is a board certified and Harvard-trained child and adolescent clinical psychologist, Dr. Kathryn (“Kat”) Boger has devoted her career to helping children and teens with anxiety and OCD and their families. She is passionate about improving care for youth and decreasing suffering through innovative, research-based treatment approaches. Dr. Boger co-founded the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program (MAMP), nationally recognized for providing empirically-supported, intensive anxiety and OCD treatment.
While at MAMP, Dr. Boger served as program director,had oversight of all levels of program development and refinement, and served as an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Boger has published a variety of peer-reviewed journal articles, delivered regional and national talks (including a TEDx) and provided training to hospitals, schools, and the community. In 2021, Dr. Boger co-founded InStride Health with the mission of increasing access to insurance-backed, research-based care for children, adolescents, and young adults with anxiety and OCD. Dr. Boger’s children’s book on facing fears will come out in the fall of 2023.