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Parent & Child
Anxious Kids: 6 Tips for Alleviating Their Stress
By Drs. Elliott and Smith 
Jul 26, 2010, 11:14

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Childhood isn't all about puppy dogs, sunshine, and rainbows—there's a lot in our world that can make kids feel anxious. The next time your child comes to you with a worry or concern, knowing how to help alleviate his or her stress can make a tremendous difference.

            Hoboken, NJ (May 2010)—There's no doubt about it: it's tough being a kid! Most children have booked-solid schedules, high standards to meet both in and out of school, and an increasingly treacherous social world to navigate (bullying and cyberbullying, anyone?). What's more, this far-from-Mayberry childhood is set in a world that scares many of us adults stiff. Think about it: if threats of terrorism, pandemics, and economic crashes tie your stomach in knots, what are they likely to do to children who don't fully understand these situations and who don't have an adult's coping capacity?

So, what are the parents of a pint-sized handwringer to do? Before you start pulling your own hair out, see what Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies®, 2nd Edition has to say.

"As a parent, it is possible to help your children address and alleviate their anxiety in healthy ways," say Dr. Charles Elliott and Dr. Laura Smith, coauthors of Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies®, 2nd Edition (Wiley Publishing Inc., April 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-57441-6, $21.99).

"Remember, some worry and anxiety is a natural part of a child's development," they continue. "It's not possible to completely shield your kids from everything that's scary or upsetting—nor should you. Figuring out how to overcome these stressors is a part of developing good emotional adjustment. And even despite parents' best intentions, some kids will still have anxiety problems; in fact, studies have shown that almost half of what causes anxiety lies in your genes!"

So, since an anxiety-free life is out of the question for all of us (whether we're kids or adults!), how can parents best enable their children to reduce their anxiety? Read on for six strategies that Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies®, 2nd Edition offers:

Help yourself first. It might go against your instincts as a parent, but approach your child's anxiety the same way flight attendants instruct you to deal with oxygen masks: help yourself first. The bottom line is, if you yourself are anxious, unorganized, or uncertain, you'll be in no condition to truly help your child. Furthermore, our children actually pick up on and mirror our emotions!

Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies®, 2nd Edition overviews a wide variety of anxiety-reducing strategies that parents will find helpful. If your own efforts don't reduce your anxiety as much as you'd like, though, consider consulting a mental health professional who's trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Model mellow. Kids really do see and hear everything (including the stuff you wish they wouldn't!), and they learn a great deal about behaviors, attitudes, and coping mechanisms from the people they care about. Therefore, take every opportunity to model relatively calm behavior and thinking. And don't invalidate your child's anxiety by downplaying it as "silly"—your child needs to see you handling the concern.

Take baby steps. In many instances, your child will have to face whatever his fear might be (going to school, the dark, being apart from you, heights, etc.). In these situations, consider using gradual exposure, which involves breaking the feared situation or object into small steps. In most cases, your child's anxiety will be reduced by 50 percent or more. When using gradual exposure, keep the following things in mind:

  • Break the steps down as small as you possibly can. It takes children longer to master a fear than adults.
  • Expect to see some distress. This is often the hardest part for parents! If you can't handle seeing your child becoming upset, enlist the help of a trusted friend or relative. Be aware, though, that extreme anxiety and upset might warrant professional help.
  • Praise your child for any and all successes. Compliments are good—however, don't make the common mistake of pressuring your child by saying what a big boy or girl he or she is.
  • Show patience. Don't get so worked up that your own emotions spill over and frighten your child further.

Mommy and Daddy say relax! Children benefit from learning to relax just as much as adults do—however, kids require different strategies because they don't have the same attention spans as their parents. These techniques are taught most effectively to individual children as opposed to groups in order to cut down on embarrassment and silliness.

  • Teach your child anxiety-reducing abdominal breathing. Have her lie on the floor and pretend that her tummy is a big balloon that she is slowly filling with air, then letting it out.
  • Teach your child to relax his muscles by tensing them, then relaxing them. (Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies®, 2nd Edition provides kid-friendly instructions for each major muscle group.)
  • Most kids have excellent imaginations—so take advantage of that! Read your child a book, perhaps one that appeals to her sense of joy and fun, and encourage her to really imagine what the pages are describing. This will help rid her mind of worries and concerns.

Exorcise anxiety through exercise. Exercise is helpful to anxious kids in several ways. First of all, it burns off excess adrenaline, which fuels anxiety. Secondly, participating in competitive sports especially (even if your child is reluctant to do so at first) can provide children with important mastery experiences that will bring pride and a sense of accomplishment.

Getting help from others. If your child's anxieties are especially long-lived or if they interfere with his normal activities (play, learning, etc.), it's time to seek outside help. Turn to your child's medical doctor first to make sure there are no physical reasons (such as side effects from an existing medication) for the anxiety. If there aren't, your doctor may refer you and your child to a clinical psychologist, social worker, counselor, or school psychiatrist.

"By teaching your child early on how to deal with worries and upsets, you'll be doing a great deal to help prevent anxiety disorders from cropping up later in life," conclude the authors. "And what's more, you'll enable your child to react and respond to life in healthy, positive ways—that way, he or she will really be free to live life to the fullest rather than being inhibited by unhealthy anxiety or fear!"

# # #

About the Authors:

Drs. Elliott and Smith are clinical psychologists and coauthors of: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Edition), Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can't I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Their work has been featured in various periodicals including Family Circle, Parents, Child, and Better Homes and Gardens, as well as popular publications like the New York Post, Washington Times, Daily Telegraph (London), and Christian Science Monitor.

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