For children, just like for adults, anxiety is a part of life, and there’s a lot for kids to worry about: the first day of school, standardized testing, gun violence, divorcing parents or any other number of issues.
“When they’re crying and falling apart, as a parent you know it’s not that big of a deal,” said Spokane therapist Alyson Hervatine, who works with children in private practice. “But they don’t know that.”
What the child needs in that moment, she said, is to be heard. They need to be allowed to feel the anxiety, and they need help understanding their emotions.
“Taking kids’ worries seriously is important to helping them get through it,” Hervatine said.
And anxiety isn’t always bad.
“It lets us know that not everything is safe,” said Kent Hoffman, a retired psychotherapist in Spokane and co-founder of Circle of Security International, an early intervention program for parents and children. “It’s good to have warning systems.”
Some kids experience situational anxiety, for instance over a test. Others are just more biologically prone to anxiety and experience it all the time, Hoffman said.
Either way, anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, including headaches, stomachaches, complaining a lot, wanting to stay home from school and withdrawing.
For parents, the natural response to a child’s anxiety is to protect them, to try to fix the problem. But that’s the opposite of what the child needs, Hoffman said
“The most important thing a child can experience is somebody who gets that they’re anxious and doesn’t try to talk them out of it,” he said.
It’s the difference between saying, “That sounds scary, I want to hear more,” and “It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s the brush-off that’s problematic,” he said.
Instead of dismissing worries, or immediately trying to fix them, Hervatine said parents need to ask themselves, “What can I do to support whatever it is that my child is feeling in this moment and to help them understand those feelings?”
The fears are real
Sometimes the fears are over something that adults know is no big deal. The standardized tests in third grade, for instance. The test is scary, it’s no fun, but the child will get through it and the score doesn’t affect whether the child moves to fourth grade.
Sometimes the fears are big enough that a parent might not be able to offer blanket assurances.
Hoffman knows an elementary-age child who’s terrified to go to school because of school shootings. And that fear isn’t unfounded, he said.
“You want to honor it as a real fear, you want to say I really hear it. You also want to say I don’t have an answer for it other than we as a family are bigger than your fear, and we’re going to help you deal with this,” Hoffman said.
And when parents don’t feel like they can tell their child a situation is going to be OK, they can find other ways to offer reassurance, Hervatine said.
For instance, with a child who has anxiety about lockdowns at school, a parent can say, “That’s a really scary situation, and your teacher is doing everything she can to keep you safe.”
Be kind, be aware
Parents, Hervatine said, need to be the bigger, stronger person in the relationship with their child. But, more importantly, they need to be kind. They also need to be aware of their own emotions.
Sometimes parents need to work on not getting triggered by the child’s anxiety, Hervatine said, “so they can stay calm enough in those moments to be the parent that that kid needs.”
If parents experience their own anxiety, children may pick up on that. So parents need to be willing to consider their impact on the situation. From that awareness, they may be able to figure out more productive ways to react.
Hoffman said parents also need to consider whether they may be feeding their child’s anxiety. Some parents want their kids to be anxious because they like the kid to need them, he said. “Because if your kid is anxious, they’ll come to you a lot.”
Parents also need to be willing to make mistakes. Too often, parents strive for perfection, Hoffman said. But that’s not possible – and it’s not even what’s best for the child.
“Good enough is good enough,” he said.
Hoffman compares parenting to a balancing act. Sometimes a parent will be tilting a little to the right, sometimes to the left. They’ll make mistakes, and they’ll recover from those mistakes. What’s important for the child to see, he said, is that the parent knows where the center is supposed to be.
And if the parent is always right there with an answer, the child isn’t able to grow and learn to deal with their own emotions.
“What we’re talking about is the balance of supporting the child’s need for comfort and wisdom and incredible care and simultaneously trusting in the child’s capacity to gradually build muscles to deal with it,” he said.
“If you stop everything you’re doing every time your child says they’re anxious, you’re going to make them more anxious,” he said. “It’s OK to say, ‘I really want to hear about this but don’t have time right now.’
“That lets them know they have the capacity to live with the anxiety until we have a chance to talk about it,” he said.
‘Later than sooner’
Parents can help children look for ways to fix or work around the anxiety, but that’s got to be way down the line, Hoffman said. First comes “staying present, listening, not fixing, not changing, honoring and recognizing that it is an authentic experience of the child that needs to be heard and held.”
Parents rush to problem-solving so quickly “because they’re anxious, they don’t know what to do,” he said.
In some cases, persistent anxiety may require help from outside the family, such as from a pediatrician or therapist.
But first, the child needs to experience the emotions, and parents need to honor the feelings “as real and tender and scared and really needing to be heard all the way through,” Hoffman said. “Then gradually, later than sooner … come up with a game plan that can help the child become more stable.”
Parents might help the child come up with a thought or image to recall when they’re feeling anxious. Or they might give the child a stone to stick in their pocket, something they can touch when they’re feeling worried.
“You can come up with beautiful next steps, but that’s later than sooner. And parents usually lead with that sooner than later.”
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