4 Ways to Parent an Anxious Child by Promoting Autonomy

Children aren’t the only ones that feel anxious sometimes. All of us have felt worried or apprehensive about something that happened in the past or may happen in the future.

While it’s possible to manage anxiety, or perception that there is a threat, it can never be completely eliminated. Fear is useful and our brain spends a lot of time interpreting information, especially social data, and deciding whether or not there is danger or a threat. But when the fear response gets stuck on and everything is a possible threat, then it really gets in the way of enjoying life.

And when you get anxious, you start to believe you can’t handle anything, because you feel so uncomfortable. When you pick up on your child’s anxiety, it can be really hard to manage your own anxiety too. You may  try to make it all better for them and calm their fears, so you can both feel calmer.

A Therapist’s Experience with Her Own Anxious Child

As a professionally trained helper, I have over-helped, over-communicated, and over-interpreted my oldest daughter’s problems from time to time. The more I talk with her, the better she says she feels to get the problem or worry off her mind. Yet the relief is temporary, because soon she’s back for more relief from mom. I start to notice how unsure and anxious she is getting about the problem over time.

So I try to be present and open to hearing about her challenges, and not tell her how to deal with the problem. Soon she comes up with her own ideas, even if they don’t always work. And she even starts spontaneously talking about what helps her calm herself down, get some sleep, or get focused on anything other than the worry swirling in her head.

4 Ways to Parent Anxious Children By Promoting Autonomy: 

While I don’t think my daughter is anxious all the time, I do think she, like all of us, gets anxious some times. So how do we parent during times when our children are anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed with problems in their life?

  1. Sit by Them – Being present when your child is struggling let’s them know you care without solving it for them. It’s ok to say you can’t solve the problem for them, but you want to hear what they think will help. In doing so, you are relating to their confident part, even if they don’t feel confident yet.
  2. Empathize without Amplify – Convey that you understand that this situation is challenging and hard for them. Try not to take sides or exaggerate the problem by reacting strongly. Leave the problem and emotions in their lap in the most caring, understanding way you can.
  3. Teach Them Thoughts Influence on Emotions – Its how we perceive situations that influence our emotions. Provide resources, such as this book called, Tiger Tiger Is it True by Katie Byron, to introduce the idea that kids can learn to challenge their thoughts and perceptions. Don’t try to be their cognitive therapist, just introduce the idea and see what they think. Again you will be engaging the calmer side of their brain.
  4. Let Them Problem Solve – As hard as it may be to not offer solutions, let your child brainstorm in their own time how to deal with the challenges. The more solutions and fixes you offer, the more unsure, confused, and dependent the child may feel over time.

We want our children to feel like they can deal with challenges and hard things from a young age. Even when we have negative and distressing emotions, we can still use different parts of our brain to deal with the challenges we face.

And the more we can manage our discomfort at seeing one of our children anxious, the more we can be present for them without fixing. In doing so, we promote growth by letting them explore how to calm and deal with challenges they face. Growth comes out of discomfort.

Please share your thoughts or ideas on how to be present for your child without telling them how to handle upsetting emotions or challenges. Or do you have other ways to parent an anxious child that you think promotes growth?

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