Our science tells us that some children are born with an anxious temperament. These temperaments can often be identified by the toddler years, and sometimes sooner. Kids with such personalities may cling excessively to their parents (or other attachment figures) and respond to novel situations, people or things with hesitation and/or fear. Moreover, about one third of such children may go on to develop an anxiety disorder (compared to eight to twelve percent of the general population). All this said, there are at least nine things parents can do, and not do, to help.
#1: Try to reduce parental anxiety. If I have unrealistic fears about the person, thing or situation under consideration I may be facilitating my child’s anxiety without even realizing it.
#2: Avoid avoidance. If the person, thing or situation your child is fearing is developmentally appropriate for him to be exposed to (e.g., going to the first soccer practice of a new team), it is often a good idea to not avoid it just because he is afraid of it. None of we engaged parents are happier than our least happy child. So, when our kids hurt we hurt, and often worse. Hence it can be an understandable knee-jerk reaction to allow our child to avoid those people, things and situations that distress him without considering whether doing so is helpful or not. However, what we often find is that avoiding developmentally appropriate experiences that are distressing can facilitate more and more avoidance and more and more anxiety.
#3: Avoid preemptive reassurances. I suggest to the parents in my practice: “Imagine I said to you as you sat down. ‘Listen, don’t worry about the ceiling collapsing on your head while we meet. It’s quite secure.’ Of course, your attention would be drawn to the ceiling and you could not help but wonder what danger I’m referring to.” A pre-emptive reassurance states that there is something worthy of being reassured about and can be like saying to a kid (unintentionally of course): “Go ahead and freak out now.”
#4: Avoid excessive reassurances. This is similar to the previous suggestion. Imagine a friend said she was nervous about a job interview and you responded by hugging her and kissing her and suggesting she’ll be fine regardless of what happens. A peer might just find it odd. A kid, who often looks to her parent to decide what to make of her world, might imagine that maybe she has underestimated the gravity of the situation.
#5: Remember that most anxiety passes once a kid is in the situation. Assuming the situation is developmentally appropriate and a child does not suffer from an untreated mental health disorder (e.g., Panic Disorder) and assuming adults are not throwing gas (excessive reassurances) on the fire, a child with an anxious temperament will usually show some initial distress but then be fine.
#6: Preemptive exposures to the situation can be helpful. Doing a dry run to the new classroom before school starts, going to the soccer field before the first practice, meeting the new coach before hand, and other preliminary exposures to what is feared can sometimes soften the initial distress, especially if such is practical and not accompanied by preemptive or excessive reassurances.
#7: Having your child breathe into his belly and try to make his muscles as soft as a cooked piece of pasta can help just before facing the feared person, thing or event. It is very difficult, and maybe even impossible, to be anxious and to have a relaxed body. In doing this, work on muscles in groups. That is, first relax the hands and arms, then the shoulders, neck and head, then the chest and belly and then the legs and feet, all while pretending that the lungs are in the lower belly instead of the chest cavity.
#8: If part of your child’s avoidance strategy is to cling to you, consider leaving the premises once you’ve dropped your child off. Of course, this assumes that you’ve determined that a responsible adult is in charge and that the situation is developmentally appropriate for your child. You can always leave your cell phone number with the adult in charge in case something surprising happens and you need to return. (It would generally not be advisable to tell your child that he may call you if he gets upset.)
#9: Consider consulting with a mental health professional if these strategies do not resolve the problem. To obtain a referral click here.