Modeling Matters: If a parent struggles with anxiety—get evidence based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatment with an adult anxiety specialist. Caring for your own anxiety will limit how your child models undesired behaviors.
Intervene early and effectively! If your child shows signs of anxiety that is causing distress and/or interfering with functioning, seek CBT treatment with a child anxiety specialist. Don’t wait years for help because untreated anxiety can lead to problems including possible school refusal, lack of friends and opportunities to develop social skills, limited development of independence, healthy sleep patterns, lack of involvement in activities outside of the home, substance use and depression as one’s life shrinks with loneliness, low self esteem (“I can’t handle this”) and lack of building mastery. Anxious children often don’t get the help they need and when they do, they have often already suffered for years, other problems have developed, and they often don’t get the most effective, evidence based behavioral treatment.
Acceptance and Empathy: Accept if your child is “wired together” to have more anxiety and be empathic, rather than invalidating, of their experience. Taking the moment to accept their feelings (even when they seem outlandish!) will allow you to both acknowledge and then support your child more effectively.
Don’t Permit Avoidance: It is really hard to see your child suffer and parents often, meaning well, allow their child to escape and avoid anxiety provoking situations. As a parent, it is important to learn to tolerate this distress, remain calm and know that permitting escape and avoidance and providing excessive reassurance only strengthens anxiety, reinforces your child’s thoughts that the world is a scary place and the belief that they aren’t capable of coping effectively. This is an important dance parents often do with their anxious children and it is critical to change this pattern.
Reward Brave Behavior: Instead of paying attention to anxious behavior, reward use of anxiety management skills (recognizing when anxious, which situations trigger anxiety, what happens in your body, what are your thoughts, calming your body, challenging unrealistic, catastrophic thinking with checking the facts to develop more realistic thinking along with coping and calming thoughts, and approach feared situations in a gradual, manageable, step by step fashion). We are asking our children to do what terrifies them so provide them with empathy, support, skills and coaching so they overcome anxiety by facing their fears and learning that they can, in fact, do this, nothing terrible will happen, and they can live a full life that is not limited by anxiety. Rewarding use of skills and facing fears (known as exposure) helps your child do what is challenging. Exposure is the most important ingredient in effective treatment of anxiety.
Be Involved in your Child’s CBT Anxiety Treatment: Parental involvement is critical for many reasons including learning about anxiety disorders and their treatment, learning which parenting strategies increase and which decrease child anxiety, learning to coach your child in use of anxiety management skills in challenging moments, not permitting the dance of avoidance, modeling use of skills and brave behavior, learning to tolerate when your child is experiencing distress and responding with empathy and approach, providing many opportunities for exposures and rewarding behaviors.Parents can also use their understanding of anxiety disorders and their effective treatment to communicate important information with schools, coaches, grandparents and other involved caregivers and settings.