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The curving path of treating anxiety

boy playing plastic balloon inside inflatable pool

Many parents hope that they will be able to teach their children how to be less anxious in the same way that we might teach a child to read but this isn’t how deep, emotional growth and learning works. Learning to manage anxiety is a process — generally one that lasts a lifetime. Anxiety cuts across all aspects of our experience — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — and so it must be learned and re-learned many ways as a child grows.

It’s important that parents adjust their expectations and see their child as someone who is always and forever actively learning rather than viewing this hard work as something to be completed. We can consider various stages of understanding such as exploring how our body reacts to anxiety and how our thoughts chase after and vice versa. But also we need to accept that learning this in one context (first day of school jitters) is different than learning it in another (confronting the death of a pet) or another (dealing with conflict is an important friendship). Each confrontation with a worry is an opportunity to explore each concept and those confrontations continue through a lifetime.

A 5-year old learns to swim but is still afraid of monsters under their bed. They then learn to face the monsters but must contend with the barking dog at the park. And when they manage the dog they will confront a substitute teacher at kindergarten. Each of these must be faced anew but each is an opportunity to get stronger, smarter, more in control. Parents will need to recognize that being afraid in each situation is the same but also different. It’s not a failure to do well with one but need to start from scratch with the other. (Only it won’t be from scratch when we call on the hard won strengths and skills they are still learning.)

That nervous 5-year old may learn to conquer their fears about the swimming pools and substitutes but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a nervous 14-year old facing down a difficult history assignment. This is not backsliding; it’s progress. Children, like all of us, need to relearn things at each stage of development. When we see this as part of a healthy learning process then we won’t treat it like backsliding and in turn will model for them acceptance and understanding of facing trials.

When we know and accept that learning to cope with anxiety is lifelong, we will then be able to focus on our skills as support people. How do we get them through? How do we know when to push and when to rest? This is the job of parents through all of growing up and particularly when it comes to anxiety.

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