Successfully Parenting an Anxious Child

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Looking at the proud, beaming smile on little Alexandra's face almost makes me forget about all of the whining, tears and drama that built up to this moment. It was the last day of camp and Alexandra received a "Most Valuable Camper" trophy from her summer camp (as did every other child who attended the camp...luckily this statistical impossibility does not phase her five year old brain).  And boy did she/we work hard for this trophy. As an anxious child, each day was like ground hog day. She would begin each camp morning protesting, stating she did not want to go to camp and was scared.  She would end each day telling me about all of the fantastic highlights of her day and stating she wants to go back to this camp next summer. How can these two extreme perspectives exist in the very same child? The mind has a fascinating ability to alter reality depending on what part of the brain is most activated. In the morning, her amygdala/fight or flight response was running the show. Her universe became narrow and her only concern was self preservation and escaping the imminent danger otherwise known as summer camp. By the end of the day, her prefrontal cortex was back in charge, as she had faced and survived her fear. She was now able to hold a flexible, more balanced view of her world.

The key, in interacting with a child "on anxiety" is to assist them in moving through the state as efficiently as possible. This is not a time to talk and remind them of the 8 billion reasons why it makes no sense to hold their anxious stance, because they will not hear you. An anxious brain only cares about one thing, survival, not the nuances of life. What you can do is compassionately assist your child in putting one foot in front of the other and bravely moving forward in the face of their fear. So, we survived and even thrived in the big bad world of summer camp and most importantly, little Alexandra is learning that she does not have to give in, when her anxiety bully within tells her she can't do something.

5 tips to assist your child in facing their fears:

  1. Action speaks louder than words. Model for them moments when you are scared and do something anyway.
  2. Let them know you are proud of them and realize how hard it is to move forward in the face of fear.
  3. Break the scary task into baby steps (create an exposure hierarchy) to set them up for success.
  4. Reward their hard work. Creating a reward chart for facing fears is a powerful motivator. In addition, it conveys the message, "I know you are working hard and I am proud of you.”
  5. Never give up on your anxious child. Believe in them when they don't believe in themselves. They are strong and powerful, they just don't know it yet.