Your child has anxiety? Learn more about it and how you can help

As a parent, you may notice that your child is exhibiting anxious behaviour, but you aren’t sure where it could have come from.  Are they being bullied at school? Maybe they have had too much going on this week. A friend didn’t do what they wanted at recess today, so they were upset.

There are many reasons why a child might experience anxiety.  One of the contributing factors can be our perception of anxiety and the pressure that you put on yourself and your family in your daily life.

According to Golda Ginsburg, PhD, a psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut Health, “we know children whose parents struggle with anxiety are at elevated risk”.  Even if parents don't model anxious behaviors, they can inadvertently accommodate their child's anxiety, which research shows can make symptoms persist and worsen. Often, that behavior comes from a place of good intention. "When you see your child frightened, your natural instinct as a parent is to protect them and reassure and comfort them," Ginsburg says.

Some examples of ways that parents might model anxiety would be in the way that we model how to handle difficult or uncomfortable situations.  Compare this approach: “Just stand still, and the bee will go away” with “Oh! There’s a bee! Run!”. Another way it might show up in how you handle their stresses at school.  Consider “What did your teacher say to you? I’m going to go in there tomorrow and have a talk with her, she can’t make you sit beside Johnny!” compared to “I can hear you’re frustrated that you have to sit beside Johnny now.  What do you think your options might be in this situation?”

When we try to protect our children from all stress, we actually do them a disfavour, because they don’t learn the skills that are required to overcome the challenges they will inevitably be facing in life.

One of the first steps in helping your child manage anxiety is to identify what the difference is between stress and anxiety.  Stress is your body’s reaction to a trigger and is generally a short-term experience. There is positive and negative stress. Positive stress can motivate your child to try harder, and to push themselves a bit further than they thought they could go, resulting in a feeling of accomplishment.  Stress can also be identified because your child is able to reduce the symptoms of that stress once the perceived threat has been resolved.

Anxiety might start out as stress, but it hangs around for the long haul, it is a clinical disorder in which your worries don’t necessarily have a specific trigger.  “Anxiety is the sense of discomfort, restlessness, or uncertainty that is internally generated” David Spiegel, MD, director of Stanford Medicine’s Center on Stress and Health.

So what are some ways you can identify your role in helping your child manage their anxiety?  According to Katarina McCurdy (RCC) and Shirley Lai (RSW), some practical tools are:

  • Check in with yourself.  Could this be coming from your own level of stress right now or the level of the stress of the family as a whole?  For example, is your schedule jam packed? Is there any room for errors or do you all need to be “on” all the time in order to make life work?

  • We want our children to experience that great feeling of achievement and having success, but has that become the focus for you rather than helping them enjoy their activities or school and do the best they can?

  • Let your son or daughter take the primary responsibility for learning to manage their anxiety.

  • Be there to help your child, but remember  it is important that you don’t try to take over and instruct your child on when and what they do. Let them take the lead.

  • Picture your role as being the motivator.  Acknowledge their efforts and reward them of progress in learning to manage anxiety.**

You have so many important roles and wear so many different hats as a parent.  We hope that this article helps you to consider some ways that your can help yourself and your child.  This can actually be good news for you in that you have the power to help your child manage their anxiety by helping yourself first.

Next month we will share some tips on some practical tools to provide you and your child with in order to manage anxiety when it creeps up.


**adapted from the Cool Kids Adolescent Anxiety Program