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Parenting: 10 Tips For Dealing With An Anxious Child

The feelings of anxiety is an emotion that virtually anyone can relate to. Anxiety is caused by acute stress (the fight, flight, and freeze response) that creates a chemical change in our brain that affects our breathing, muscles, nerves, and digestion. Anxiety or fear is the body's defense mechanism primarily used to protect one from danger.

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15-20% of children are born with an anxious temperament and anxiety is the highest sought concern for treatment according to the National Institute of Health. A child could suffer from anxiety that goes far beyond what is considered a normal child's worry (like doctor's and dentist visits, spiders, the dark) that is part of healthy development. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety, and Social Phobias (Social Anxiety Disorders) are disorders that are diagnosed by a trained therapist and treated by using cognitive behavioral therapy (talk therapy). The treatment includes teaching both the child and parent coping skills, exposure to the trigger, and if needed medication.

10 Learn how to cope with triggers, together

A powerful method to helping your child cope with triggers is to teach mindfulness of what anxiety does to his or her body. Anxiety in children can cause inability or difficulty eating and falling or staying asleep. Physical symptoms may include headaches, stomach aches or nausea, fidgeting or an inability to sit still. The child may become irritable, cry, try and run away or cling to the parent.  Since anxiety can be such a strong emotion for your child to feel and understand, depending on the age of your child, he or she may be unable to articulate the cause behind these emotions.

Once your child is able to associate the feeling of being anxious to a trigger, the parent could aid in coming up with different ways the child could reduce the agitation to the trigger. Practicing deep breathing techniques, grounding methods, or other effective approaches that work for your child can be done at home. Analyzing possible scenarios together and coming up with a plan that your child could do when you are not around, can be advantageous.

9 Don't Avoid the Fear

As a parent,  it's only natural to protect our child from whatever makes them upset. However, avoiding your child's triggers may actually hinder any potential progress. The optimal way of helping your child deal with what makes them anxious is to expose him or her to the trigger as often as possible. Exposure, in small yet consistent increments, show your child he or she has the ability to face the cause without being in danger.

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The fear of the unknown can be a factor of what is stemming your child's anxiety. If placing your child in front of the trigger is too big of a step, you can expose your child to the trigger through books, apps, toys, and so on. Being receptive to your child's questions or giving hands-on experience exploring the cause of fear (for example doctor's appointment; being able to look at the medical tools before the visit starts).

8 Realistic Expectations With a Positive Outlook

Honesty and expressing realistic expectations can help lessen your child's worry about what to expect. There could be times where your child has legitimate reasoning to being anxious or scared (such as getting dental work done). There could be possible pain involved, he or she may be embarrassed about crying, or maybe is afraid of the loud noises. Sharing what could happen but having a positive outlook and tone, can be reassuring enough to make your child cooperate.

While talking to your child about what is causing the worry, try and use open-ended questions that avoid a "Yes or No" answer. By doing this, it creates open communication that reveals your child's thought process. It's important to validate the feeling without amplifying the worry. You can agree that sometimes you are also nervous about seeing the dentist because dental pain can hurt, but it is only temporary.

7 Avoid Condescension

There are instances or triggers a child may have that seem ridiculous or unjustified. Yet, rationality is not always attainable when one is crippled by worry. With emotions already running high, if your child is patronized about the worry he or she may become withdrawn. Anxiety can make a child feel isolated which can lead to further mental health ailments like depression.

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Belittling will not make your child stop being anxious. If a parent is mindful of their verbal tone, calmly explaining the practicality of the issue while being empathetic to the child's feeling is a healthier approach of letting your child feel heard. Children are more likely to have outbursts if they feel frustrated.

6 Empower With Choices

Empowering by choices can help your child feel in control of a stressful situation. Whether choices are used as a temporary distraction or an acknowledgment of your child's needs, it helps disrupts the anxious thought cycle and helps your child become present at the moment. Choices are also a part of how language development occurs, thus strengthening communication between child and parent.

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Giving choices can be suitable for whatever needs best fit your child. If your child is prone to unpredictable meltdowns caused by anxiety, allow your child to pick three of their favorite grounding or coping techniques. Then express those three choices while trying to console your upset child when an outburst occurs. A parent can also empower by choices while the child is being exposed to a trigger, by using it as a distraction, perhaps suggesting rewarding activities once the unpleasantness ends.

5 Celebrate your child's progress

Positive self-talk is effective for many people yet more so for kids. Encouragement and acknowledgment of progress are important for children who are trying to overcome obstacles, such as anxiety. In order to build up children to face their fears, parents should try to boost their confidence by encouraging them to keep pushing past their limits.

Children learn positive self-talk or affirmations by being reminded by a loved one of their capabilities and strengths. As a child matures, the words that have been said by a parent help shape their inner voice. He or she will be able to use self-talk as a coping skill that can be used when faced by stressful situations in the future.

4 Lessen the Expectancy Period

Depending on the child, the worst part of their anxiety is the lead up to of being faced by the trigger. If a child is afraid of going to school caused by separation anxiety, he or she may obsess over the worst case scenario of being left alone without Mom or Dad.

There are unpleasant triggers a child could be exposed to on short notice to lessen the waiting period. However, for instances that occur on a regular basis, having a structured schedule leading up to the trigger plus promoting the child's capability (like being required to help out around the house) can help boost independence and courage. Responsibilities can validate to the child that he or she has the adequate skills of being self-sufficient.

3 Model your own coping skills

At times, a child's reaction to stressors can be a reflection of the parent's own coping mechanisms. Children learn coping skills by observing their parents explore various ways of handling unpleasant situations. Modeling how to practice self-care is also effective while trying to display productive coping skills.

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Being open about your own mental health, triggers, and accomplishments can be encouraging to your child to hear that everyone has their own battle to face. Possible causes for anxiety could be genetics, brain chemistry, life situations, or learned behavior. Even though there are many techniques and methods used for coping with triggers, your child trying different ones that others suggest could be helpful in finding out what works for him or her.

2 Cooperative Patience

Unfortunately, re-wiring the brain (so to speak) takes a lot of time and patience. For children, it can be challenging as they are constantly learning new information at all times while still trying to practice what they learned prior. As a parent, it is important to understand that change is always a struggle. There may be regressions in your child's anxiety journey, or perhaps the phobia might be replaced with something else, yet cooperative patience is the best thing a parent could do while coaching their child through such a difficult stage.

The child knowing Mom and Dad will still love him/her, despite not coping so well with a trigger, can be reassuring enough to try again. If a child doesn't feel embarrassed or ashamed, they may be more expressive in asking for help if a trigger becomes too difficult to face alone.

1 Encourage Anxiety Reducing Activities

Anxious children may struggle with snapping their brain out of the fight, flight, and freeze response. However, there are many techniques to help calm and regulate emotions. Stimulating the Vagus Nerve, located on both sides of the voice box, can help communicate to the brain to snap out of the unwanted response. Examples of this could be chewing gum, singing or humming, or gargling with water. Your child can take deep breaths from the diaphragm and lower abdomen by activities like blowing bubbles, whistling, or "breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth."

Studies show that activities that cross the midline, resets the brain so both hemispheres work together being able to use both logic and emotion. Grounding techniques like "look at one thing, hear one thing, smell one thing" can also help to narrow attention back to what is actually going on. The great thing about anxiety-reducing activities is that they can be done independently, and be used even when Mom and Dad are not around.

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