It can be difficult for a parent to watch their child struggle with big worries. As parents, we want to be able to fix our child’s problems – preferably this would happen quickly and easily. If we can’t fix what concerns them (which we often cannot), we are left to support the child through their anxiety. This may sound simplistic, but I assure you, it’s not. Parental support is vitally significant for the child, and often, empowering for the parent. As the saying goes — a good parent prepares the child for the path, not the path for the child. Approached with gentleness and kindness, encouraging support can be a great gift to their developing identity and self-confidence.
Practical Ways Parents Can Support Their Anxious Child’s Wellbeing
Children require consistent, predictable routines in order to flourish1. These don’t have to be rigid or excessive, but a general structure for the course of a day allows a child to predict what comes next, and to prepare for it. For example, create a rhythm to the bedtime routine that becomes so predictable and soothing that it lulls the child to sleep (figuratively speaking). When a child knows what time they go to bed, and the events that lead up to it, they can begin to gear down and relax, knowing that the adult in charge will be helping this process the same way every night. Avoid screen time two hours prior to bedtime as the emitted blue light inhibits the release of melatonin (the hormone responsible for sleep cycles and circadian rhythm).2 Instead, read books together, discuss a moment of gratitude, ask questions about their day, or speak words of affirmation to your child.
During daytime hours, a child’s pace of life should be slow and sustainable. Children need plenty of time for play and quiet exploration.3 Children who are expected to run at a pace that is beyond their capacity may experience an increase in anxiety. As an adult, you may have a clear perspective on what is manageable for your child. They may be excited to join five different sports teams this fall, but you are the one with the foresight to understand that, within a short time, this may lead to them feeling overwhelmed. This, of course, evolves as children get older, and every child is truly unique in what they can tolerate – much like their adults!
Lastly, create space in your day (or week) to connect with your child. Follow your child’s innate interests and spend one-on-one time enjoying what they do.
Some ideas to get you started:
- If they’re interested in food, bake cookies
- If they love sports, kick a soccer ball around, just for fun
- If they enjoy physical activity, go on a bike ride or for a walk
- If they’re into music, listen to a new song they’re excited about and show them what you know on the guitar or piano
- If they’re interested in mechanics, have them help you change the oil, or open the hood of the car to look around together
Intentional investment of time spent with your child will pay dividends when it comes to their behaviour, but more importantly, to their sense of belonging and connection. The attachment that is formed from these positive connections bolster a child’s confidence to face the world, and increases resilience to stress.4,5,6
Ways Parents Can Emotionally Support Their Anxious Child’s Wellbeing
Emotional support is an extension of practical support. A parent may become overwhelmed by their own feelings (of guilt, or frustration, or panic) when they see their child in the throes of anxiety. It may be important to take a moment to check in with yourself before running to the aide of your child. First, accept that your child is feeling anxious, and notice your own feelings about this. Give yourself some time to regulate your own emotions. When you feel ready, approach your child to validate their feelings, and to name what you see happening for them. For example, “I see that your fists are clenched and your eyes are wide. These must be big worries for you.” Sit with them as they feel the weight of their worry without trying to rush them, or brush it off. Once the child has walked through the experience of their big feelings of worry, re-direct them to calming activities.
Some ideas to get you started:
- run a warm bath
- go for a walk together
- somatic breathing exercises
- progressive muscle relaxation
Lastly, show your child that you, their hero, can make mistakes, do hard things, go on to survive the experience, and thrive. It can be very helpful to practice self-compassion in a way that is visible to the child.7 For example, if you find yourself running late at the school drop-off, model taking a few deep breaths, smile, and acknowledge, “Wow, we sure are running late today! I can’t get it right every day though, and that’s okay! Today we might be late, but maybe tomorrow will be different.”
It can be soothing for a child to observe their parents set boundaries that guard their own time and self-care in fact, it reinforces that it is acceptable for the child to do the same.
If you or your child would like to come in to discuss their big worries, or yours, please contact us and we would be happy to help! I’d love to work with you while I complete my internship. We also have a whole roster of Registered Clinical Counsellors available to work with you as well.
- Spagnola, M., & Fiese, B. H. (2007). Family Routines and Rituals: A Context for Development in the Lives of Young Children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284–299. org/10.1097/01.IYC.0000290352.32170.5a
- Fletcher, F. E., Conduit, R., Foster-Owens, M. D., Rinehart, N. J., Rajaratnam, S. M. W., & Cornish, K. M. (2018). The Association Between Anxiety Symptoms and Sleep in School-Aged Children: A Combined Insight From the Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire and Actigraphy. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 16(2), 169–184. https://doi.org/10.1080/15402002.2016.1180522
- Mrnjaus, C. (2013). The Child’s Right to Play?! Croatian Journal of Education, 16(1), 217-233.
- Neufeld, G., & Maté, G. (2004). Hold on to your kids: Why parents matter.
- Priest, J. B. (2013a). Anxiety disorders and the quality of relationships with friends, relatives, and romantic partners: Anxiety disorders and relationship quality. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 78–88. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.21925
- Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY: Basic Books
- Neff, K. (2013). Self compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.