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what to do if you have an anxious child

A common concern in the Family/ Parent coaching sessions I do is childhood anxiety. Often we see anxiety as a problem that needs to be 'managed' or 'coped with'; however, I'm interested in helping kids to overcome it completely.
So, here are 4 things that you can do if your child is prone to anxiety or worry.

1. make them feel as secure and safe as possible

Kids behave in a way that is totally consistent with how the world looks to them, growing up is an unsettling and uncertain time, and without the experience or the skills to cope, anxious thinking is completely understandable.
The first thing to do then is to help kids to feel as safe and secure as possible, not in terms of eliminating risk or snow-ploughing obstacles away, but in the sense of creating the conditions that help your child to feel psychologically safe and secure, and there are 5 things that our kids need from us in order for this to happen:
  • 1
    to feel LOVED
  • 2
    to feel that they are GOOD ENOUGH
  • 3
    to feel that they are TRUSTED
  • 4
    to feel SUPPORTED
  • 5
    to be allowed to BE THEMSELVES
I have created an evaluation questionnaire that will enable you to see how well you are supporting your child across these 5 areas.
If you are interested in improving your performance across these five areas then take a look at the 30 Day Parent Transformation program.

2. focus only on what is good

What we focus our attention on we create, so I advise parents to stop worrying about what's wrong (and trying to fix it), and go in the opposite direction instead: look for the good in your child and focus on that exclusively.
As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
Focusing on the good is a simple and rewarding approach, and it has 2 elements:

1: look for the strengths your child has

Over many years of research in the field of Positive Psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing), scientists discovered 24 traits that human beings share, called CHARACTER STRENGTHS.
These 24 strengths are the universal building blocks of who you are as a person, and your blend of these strengths is as unique as your fingerprint, essentially it's what makes you, you.
Focusing on your child's STRENGTHS changes how your child sees and thinks of themselves, and when you shift who you think you are and how you see the world, your behaviour changes. 
Instead of their worries and fears being the focus of attention, they begin to see and think of themselves as a strong, resourceful, capable human being.
To make life easy, I recommend focusing on 6 strengths only, I have identified these as key strengths, as they build character, resilience, self-belief and confidence.
  • 1
    ZEST
  • 2
    HOPE
  • 3
    SELF-REGULATION
  • 4
    CREATIVITY
  • 5
    BRAVERY
  • 6
    PERSEVERANCE

what to do with these strengths?

Every time your child displays a strength related behaviour... you PRAISE them, here's a step-by-step guide I wrote showing you how to do this.
This approach can take a bit of getting used to so, here is a printable that will help. There's a checklist with behavioural examples and a weekly review you can do with your child.
Both will help you to use STRENGTHS as a framework for your day to day interactions with your kids, which will help them to build a strong, resourceful, capable identity.

2: look for the good in what they do

Kids aren't anxious 100% of the time, nor are they always anxious with the same level of intensity. 
So, what happens the rest of the time and how can we use these experiences to develop a solution?
The key is to notice what is happening when your child isn't anxious or is less anxious and then either help them to do more of that, or try and replicate these conditions.
Some questions that will help you elicit what's already working:
  • What is it that your child does when they aren't worried or anxious?
  • How do they know not to worry?
  • What circumstances exist when they cope well with things? 
  • When do they try things/ take risks?
  • What do you think, say or do when they aren't worried or anxious?
  • What circumstances do you create when they cope well with things? 
  • What do you do when they do try things/ take risks?
Not all of these questions will have answers, they are designed to help you look for even the smallest evidence of your child behaving in a non-anxious way.  
Look for what is already working and then do more of it.

3. teach them how their emotions actually work

This might sound strange, but the way that we think that life works isn't really how it works.
We think that life happens from the outside-in.
We think that it's the things that happen to us that cause us to feel the way that we feel, for example: I have this thing coming up that is causing me to feel anxious.
But in actual fact, it's our thinking about this 'thing' coming up that that's causing the anxious feeling... not the thing itself.
Our entire experience of life is generated from the inside-out.
We can see this very clearly with anxiety, the worry only exists as a thought. The future event hasn't even happened (and might not), it's the thinking about the event that's causing the feeling of anxiety. 
In fact, we are only ever feeling our thinking in any given moment.
Kids feel anxious in the moment because they are having anxious thoughts in that moment... their feelings reflect their thinking.

But the real problem isn't that they have anxious thoughts, it's that they act as if these thoughts are real- and they are not.

what to do?

The first thing is to explain to kids this relationship between feeling and thought. Breathing techniques and mindfulness are great ways to help the mind quieten down, but tempting as it might be, it's important not to try and change or stop the anxious thoughts.
Trying to stop or change thoughts only makes things worse, you help to give them energy and power through attention and focus.
Anxious thoughts are part of the human experience, we all have them and always will have them. The key is to learn to accept them when they occur and then act even though you are having them. 
This is done through practice, getting comfortable with having uncomfortable thoughts.
Sort of like: 
"Oh I feel anxious, therefore I am having some anxious thoughts... it's just my thinking... it's not real... these thoughts will soon pass - they always do... what would I like to do now even though I'm having these thoughts..."

4. teach them the skills they need to cope

If you know that you have the skills and abilities to be able to cope with whatever life throws at you, you might still have anxious feelings and thinking, but deep down you also know that you are going to be OK.
I have designed a RESILIENCE based program which teaches kids these skills and abilities, specifically:
  • how to PERSEVERE instead of giving up 
  • how to be BRAVE, to face their fears and to overcome rejection and failure 
  • how to have a POSITIVE-can-do attitude, instead of focusing on what's wrong
  • how to think CREATIVELY to solve problems and overcome challenges
  • how to have the SELF-DISCIPLINE to take action and to make difficult decisions
  • how to be DETERMINED and ENTHUSIASTIC even when things go wrong
The program is based around the 6 key Character STRENGTHS I mentioned earlier.
And you and your child are very welcome to try the first three modules free here

next steps

If you haven't already, we absolutely recommend that you and your child take the CHARACTER STRENGTH survey- it's free, you just need to register.

want to help your kid(s) develop their character strengths?

Why not try the first 3 modules of our BEST ME program for FREE?

Designed specifically to help kids to develop the qualities needed to be successful: confidence, resilience and self-belief, using their character strengths.