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“Keeping Your Child’s Anxiety in Proper Perspective”

April 27, 2018     By Dan Daly, Director Youth Care Emeritus, Boys Town

Anxiety, Coping Skills, Depression, Mental Health, Parent-Child Relationships, Teens, Tween

Anxiety is a normal emotion people experience during every stage of life. Just because it typically creates discomfort and distress doesn't mean it's an unhealthy response or a problem that requires labeling and professional intervention.

Anxiety is no more than a signal for potential difficulties or dangers in everyday life. For example, a teen might be dating someone she really likes, but she isn't sure her boyfriend is treating her right and she's anxious about it. This discomfort is a signal for her to look at the relationship more closely and ask questions about its health. Or, a younger child who takes the bus to school may get upset and refuse to ride it anymore. After some discussion, you learn he's being bullied, so you help him navigate the unhealthy situation so it stops and he feels safe. In these instances – and in many others involving anxiety – the discomfort children and teens feel is a natural response and one that can be the motivation to address and resolve an issue.

Some parents tend to view the anxiety and fear their children experience as abnormalities rather than the normal emotions and reactions to experiences and situations that should and do make people feel that way. For example, children might be worried that a shooting could happen at their school because they heard of such an incident in recent news reports. Is this an abnormal response? Not at all! In fact, it's a natural reaction to unsettling and scary news. Some kids might get angry and take action, while some might withdraw. The same emotion can lead to all sorts of different responses – and a lot of that is based on the individual temperament of your child. Once you know your child's typical responses, help navigate them toward lessening their anxiety. The key here is to not focus on your child's anxiety but instead focus on what you can to do to help lighten it.  

The hard part for parents is seeing their children in discomfort from anxiety and fear. In our desire to be good parents, we often think removing distress from their lives is the right and best thing to do. Often, however, the opposite is true and the best action to take is to let your child work through the discomfort – with your help. Look back on your own anxieties and fears growing up – when you got in trouble at school, were cut from a team, lost a job, saw a relationship sour, or any of the many other traumas you experienced. You now know that all of those things helped you grow and adjust. Even though they were distressing in the moment, you survived and learned valuable lessons about how to handle those feelings and situations in better, healthier ways. The same approach can work for children.

The best thing parents can do is help their kids choose the healthiest response and guide them through to the other side. This allows children to learn how to better deal with similar feelings and experiences that will inevitably come their way. 

Finally, it's important to note there may be times when anxiety and fear really do incapacitate and immobilize your child. Being unable to meet daily responsibilities can signal a significant problem, and may require professional help. But being watchful and proactive can head off having to go to that extreme. For example, if your child is eating or sleeping poorly, doesn't want to do things they normally enjoy, or are having problems concentrating, completing homework, or is very hesitant to go to school, it might indicate that anxiety is becoming problematic and that it's time for you to step in and help.   

Anxiety doesn't have to be a syndrome or a debilitating emotion. It can be a signal that your child needs new responses to situations where they are struggling. This creates wonderful opportunities for new learning to occur.

To teach proper coping skills, try the Feelings and Coping Skills Tool.

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