Watching your child struggle with anxiety is so tough. Understanding how to support is crucial to their recovery.
When working with children with anxiety, parent involvement is key. The work we do in therapy is important, but nothing can replace the impact a parent (or guardian) has on their child. Below are 4 ways a parent can support their child with anxiety recovery.
#1 Name The Anxiety
Externalizing the anxiety can be a powerful tool for adolescents. It helps a child realize anxiety is what they are experiencing, not who they are. There are a few ways to do this, but my favorite exercise is to name the anxiety. It can be a silly name, like “Flutters”, or, more reflective of how challenging anxiety can be, like “Voldemort”. Your child can use their creativity to think of what they’d like to name their anxiety.
Naming the anxiety can also help identify what the child wants to do vs. what the anxiety is saying. For example, “I want to go to the birthday party but my anxiety says nobody will talk to me” or “I want to participate in class but my anxiety says it's too scary to handle.”
#2 Model Sitting With Big Feelings
The goal of anxiety therapy isn’t to eliminate anxiety. Rather, it's to respond differently when anxiety shows up. Through this change in behavior, we show our body and brain that anxiety is uncomfortable but not dangerous. As a bonus byproduct, anxiety will show up quieter and less frequently.
In therapy, your child will learn to sit with big feelings. Rather than struggling with them or pushing them away, they will practice making room for big feelings (anxiety, anger, etc.) and responding in a way that's congruent with their values. It's simple - but not easy! This is why modeling the practice is so important. When you’re experiencing a big feeling (say, anger while in traffic - we've all been there!) model making space for it. This could sound like:
“I’m noticing I’m feeling anxious about being in traffic, and potentially being late to your sister’s play. This feeling is uncomfortable, but not dangerous. I know we’ll handle and adapt to the situation that comes”
#3 Reduce Accommodation
It is a natural, innate desire to help our children avoid emotional pain. The tricky part is, helping your child avoid anxiety is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. It reinforces the anxiety cycle and sends the message that they cannot tolerate those feelings. Instead, we want to model the belief that they can handle these tricky feelings in a healthy, sustainable way.
Anxiety accommodation can look like:
Providing repeated reassurance
Helping them avoid situations that trigger anxiety (school, social, etc.)
Taking over tasks that elicit anxiety
Adjusting family plans to accommodate a child's anxiety
The goal is not to go cold turkey on accommodation. Instead, it is to gradually reduce accommodation and encourage your child to face their fears one by one. Ideally, this is in collaboration with your child (and therapist). Shifting from accommodating to encouraging may sound like:
“You may be feeling really frustrated with me right now. I understand that. But, we know not going will make anxiety grow. I want to help you, and not the anxiety. What are some ways I can support you in going to soccer practice today?”
“Answering that would fuel the worry, how can I support you in this moment without doing that?”
“This is going to be hard but it's OK to feel this anxiety, I know you can do this”
#4 Practice Self-Compassion Together
Individuals with anxiety disorders can be really hard on themselves. You may notice your child speaking negatively about themselves or over-apologizing. These are signs that greater self-compassion is needed.
Self-Compassion has three parts: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Each of the components are important, but I find that those with anxiety struggle with common humanity the most. The idea that each of us is imperfect, makes mistakes and goes through life doing the best we can.
Part of anxiety recovery is being flexible when things don’t go as planned. It is challenging the idea that we can beat ourselves up into getting better grades, or self-punish our way to popularity. These tactics are not only mentally taxing, but actually, fuel anxiety due to fear of harsh criticism. I.e. “If I don’t do well, I will beat myself up in my head for days…”
Practicing self-compassion with your child may look like:
Listening to a guided self-compassion break together
Being kind to yourself out loud when you make a mistake
Using compassionate accountability to motivate your child to do difficult tasks
You are a parent who is attuned to your child's needs and wants to see them live their most fulfilling life. By reading this article - you are finding ways to support even further, and that is amazing!
For more on this topic, I recommend the book Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD by Dr.Eli Lebowitz