How do I help my anxious child?

If you're parenting an anxious child, I'm sure you've already been subjected to the advice that is rarely asked for rarely helpful. And often critical and leaves you feeling worse.

Dawn Friedman MSEd

This is a version of a question I get in so many different forms. Sometimes it’s about a specific age, like how do I help my four year old? Or how do I help my 14 year old?

Sometimes it’s about a specific symptom like how do I help my child who gets anxious stomach aches? And sometimes it’s about a specific diagnosis like how do I help my teen who has social anxiety?

Those all might make future posts, but for this one we’re going to stick with the bare bones question, which is how can I help my anxious child.

Because no matter how your child is experiencing the anxiety or how you’re experiencing your anxious child there are a couple things that you can do across the board.

The first thing you can do is something you’re already doing by reading here and that’s to get educated about anxiety.

The more you learn about anxiety, the better you can understand your child’s experience and your own experience, too. So listen, you’re amazing. Thank you for doing that. Getting educated about anxiety will help you make better decisions for your child and better decisions for yourself. That’s great.

Now the other thing you can do is to start putting together your village. You know that “it takes a village to raise a child” motto? Yes, absolutely and every parent needs a village. But the parent of a child who has special needs — like a child who has anxiety — well, we need a special village.

This might include grandparents and other loved ones; friends you made at the park; or other parents at the daycare center. It might include your childcare provider or your child or teen’s teacher, or coach.

And I really hope it does. I really hope that those people are there for you and your child. But sometimes it doesn’t include those people.

Anxious kids are harder to parent. Anxious kids either act out with meltdowns and arguments and big behavior, or they act in with depression and perfectionism and stomach aches and headachesAnd of course some anxious kids do both. Big loud, difficult behaviors and dark, scary thoughts and feelings.

Not everyone understands this. If you’re parenting an anxious child, I’m sure you’ve already been subjected to the advice that is rarely asked for and rarely helpful yet is often critical and leaves you feeling worse. I can’t tell you the number of parents who have reached out to me after being knocked around a bunch, being sent to parenting classes that don’t address what their child’s issues really are, being told, “It’s a discipline issue” and being handed behavioral charts. Or told to read certain books that don’t really seem to make any sense for what they’re going through.

If you’ve ever had to drag your sobbing child out of an event or had to cancel at the last minute because they won’t let you leave or admitted to being exhausted because your 12 year old won’t sleep alone, then I’m sure you know how it feels to be judged or criticized by the people you turn to for support.

If this has happened to you, I am truly sorry. Please know that those people may be your friends and they may be your family, but they are not your village. Your village is the people who will hold you up and cheer you on. So if people can’t do that, they’re not your village.

Having a child whose needs are different means you might have to look harder for that support system. For one thing, you might have some practical barriers. You might not get to chat with other parents very often because your child refuses to go places or refuses to leave you once you get there. Look around at the playground and the moms who are standing on the edges, trying to negotiate with their little kids, they’re not getting to talk to friends and connect.

Or your child may be so quiet and well-behaved at school that their teachers don’t even know who they are let alone that they’re having meltdowns when they get home over homework.

Grandparents and other relatives might see your struggles but decide to tell you that it’s all your fault. And of course it’s NOT all your fault.

If you spend time with people who make you feel bad then those are the wrong people and we need to find you the right people.

So, where do you find them? You can start asking around. If you’re a member of a neighborhood Facebook group or a mom’s day out group, or you volunteer with the PTA then instead of asking about behaviors, ask about anxiety.

Anxiety is incredibly common, but we don’t always talk about it. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders impact 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. Twenty-five percent! Now that doesn’t mean that every child who meets criteria is going to get diagnosed (because there are lots of barriers to getting diagnosed, which I’ll probably talk about in another post).

But if you start speaking to parents about anxiety, with a goal to find your people, you can find them.

One reason you need to do this, and this is probably obvious, is that going it alone is hard and emotional. Having friendships that support you is just hugely important. But there’s another reason too, which is that parents are the best resource for other parents.

If you need to know who sells the underwear that are most comfy to sensory sensitive kids ask another parent. (And by then way I hear it’s Hanna Andersson). If you want to know which therapist has a special gift working with teens struggling with social anxiety, ask another parent.

That’s going to be a lot more useful than browsing Psychology Today listings.

Parents who have been there and done that parents who are a little further down the road. Parents who make it a hobby of over researching can make your life a whole lot easier. And if you are the parent who has been there and done that, if you were the parent a little further down the road, or if you’re the parent whose hobby is over researching then getting to be the expert for a parent who needs your help can make a real difference in your self-confidence.

We all do better when we don’t have to go it alone. As a therapist, I’ve worked with a lot of anxious children and it’s their parents who inspired me to build Child Anxiety Support.

Over and over again, those parents would tell me, “I just feel so alone. I feel like the only one. I feel like a bad parent.”

I built this program so that parents who are struggling can find each other. I wanted them to be able to come to a safe, private space and be able to talk about the challenges and know they are with people who get it. And who aren’t going to judge and aren’t going to criticize but are going to hold each other up.

I wanted a place where parents could brainstorm and come up with solutions that make sense for their families, but without feeling pressured to do any particular thing, any particular way.

The membership is an unasked-for-advice-free zone. I’m explicit about this because every parent — whether they have an anxious child or not — should be able to vent without getting an avalanche of well-intended, but unasked for advice.

But at the same time, I wanted a space where parents could do more than just commiserate. I wanted there to be a culture of growth and change and progress. I wanted parents to be able to learn about anxiety, how to manage it, how to help their children face their fears and grow through it. I wanted them to be able to help each other as they moved to a better place but also to still be able to complain, cry, laugh, and to share.

If you are feeling alone in the big work of parenting a child or teen with anxiety I hope you will come and check the site out

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