If your child experiences anxiety or excessive fearfulness then he or she is not alone.
Currently, around 11% of children have significant problems coping with anxiety. And around 3% experience some form of depression.
As reported in recently in Australian website Kidspot, Macquarie University psychology lecturer Dr. Carolyn Schniering stated that anxiety problems are the most common emotional disorders that children experience.
It’s important to understand that anxiety is not something to be afraid of. As Dr. Schniering says, “It’s a normal emotion and an important part of how we engage with the world.”
I agree. Experiencing some anxiousness in new social situations or some specific situations such around water is quite normal and, in some regards, healthy.
It’s not healthy when anxiousness stops kids doing things they want or are able to do or interferes excessively with their school or pre school experiences.
Genetics plays a part
Macquarie University research shows that children from a young age who display high levels of anxiety, and who have a parent who is excessively anxious or depressed, are seven to 11 times more likely to develop anxiety.
This finding supports my experience that anxious parents beget anxious kids. But it’s not that simple.
Some children are simply more prone to experiencing excessive anxiousness than others. These kids are typically classified as worriers, shy types and more sensitive souls who wear their hearts on their sleeves. (I’ve parented one of these types and I learned first hand that some situations they experienced needed to be handled with some parental care and attention!)
I want to stress that these children are not necessarily going to experience debilitating anxiety, however they do benefit from a parenting style that is sympathetic but at the same time empowers them to tackle their fears.
It’s worth noting that if you are overly anxious or experiencing depression, then self-care needs to be your first priority before you can assist your kids.
When should you worry
Dr. Schniering says, “As a rule of thumb, parents should be more concerned if the fears or worries they experience become excessive and their child is unable to deal with every day life.”
I would also add that when children become overwhelmed by their fears then it may be time to seek professional help. A first port of call may be a General Practitioner or your child’s school. (Our research shows that parents are more likely to seek help from their child’s school than their GP, however my experience has been that local doctors often have a good handle on these issues as well as knowledge of local providers.)
Helpful parenting practices
Before looking at helpful practices, let’s quickly list some that are unhelpful for parenting anxious kids:
• Fixing kids’ problems. As I wrote in my book Thriving parents who jump in too soon when kids experience difficulties only increase their children's anxiety and don't give them the chance to build their capabilities.
• Allowing avoidance. Letting kids escape new or fearful situations validates their fears.
• A ‘Get over it’ attitude. There’s a difference between “You can do this!” and “For goodness sake, get over it!” The latter often comes from parent impatience and stress.
Okay, now for the helpful parenting practices for kids who are anxious. These include:
1. Skilling up children and young people: Help kids face their fears by skilling them (“Look around for a friendly face when you go to scouts.’’) You need to put your coaching hat to build skills and self-confidence, which defeats anxiety.
2. Scaffolding towards independence: Rather than avoidance allow kids to face their fears in stages (“Let’s go to the party for an hour, then I’ll pick you up.”) By breaking things down into smaller stages kids feel that they are more in control. Lack of control is behind a great deal of anxiousness in adults, as well as kids.
3. Use empathy, not sympathy: There is a difference. Empathy shows you understand how they feel; however sympathy can be maudlin, leading you to pay excessive attention to the fear as well as and letting them off the hook. Kids need a supportive adult who says (but not necessarily in these words), ‘I know how you feel but I also know you can do this.’
4. Model risk-taking: If you want kids to be brave then you go first. Your calmness, patience and willingness to methodically work your way through new situations has a calming effect on kids (good leadership is basically about staying calm in stressful situations), as well as showing them how fears of unknown, new social situations, and even specific fears such as going to the dentist, can be handled positively.
It’s worth noting that most kids grow out of their anxiety given attentive, resilient parenting.
As a general parenting strategy, I recommend that you take a strength-based approach. That is focus on building children’s strengths and assets to help them overcome fears. At the same time recognise that some children may need some extra assistance from time to time as a result of their anxiety.
For more ideas to help you raise brave kids visit parentingideas.com.au
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