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Dealing with the anxious child

Dealing with the anxious child

claudette picBy Claudette Jordan

Anxiety is a natural emotion which is adaptive, for example, you smell smoke in your house, become afraid, and run out. Everyone gets anxious, the difference with pathological anxiety is the DEGREE of anxiety experienced, and the person becomes more EASILY anxious, more OFTEN, and more INTENSELY.

There are 3 aspects to anxiety, namely, physiological, cognitive(worrisome thoughts), and behaviour(urge to run away or lash out)

 Common strategies parents use to manage anxiety are:

Providing excessive reassurance

This is a very common approach with many parents often offering their anxious child frequent verbal reassurance and/or physical affection and closeness. Children in general do need this from their parents, but the danger of this approach with anxious personalities is that they are not able to rely on themselves and will thus seek reassurance more often from others.

Furthermore,it may relieve anxiety for a little while, but in the long term the more reassurance you give, the more they will demand. Reassurance also equals positive attention from a parent, so in fact the anxiety is actually being rewarded, and may then seem very worthwhile to a child.

Being too directive

Parents watch their anxious child feeling helpless and try to take over and direct the child, that is, tell the child exactly what to do, how to behave and what to say, or they do things on behalf of the child. This also reduces fear but parents are not helping the child to learn what to do in the situation – as long as a child has a parent to take over the anxious situation for them, they do not have to face the fear of it themselves.

 Permitting/encouraging avoidance

Sometimes parents are at a loss of how to manage anxious situations and end up allowing their child to avoid the fearful situation. When avoidance becomes a habit, it has long term consequences


It is very easy, for parents to become frustrated and angry, especially if they are feeling helpless. However this makes the child more afraid and dependent

Research shows that parental inclusion in the psychological treatment of anxiety in children produced better results than treating the child alone, especially for younger children. It is imperative for parents to be equipped with appropriate management techniques that they can enforce alongside what a psychologist may be working towards in the therapy context.

Here are some effective management techniques:

  1. Communication about feelings

It is useful for parents and their children to evaluate fears and or fearful situations together. Focus on how people feel in different situations, use yourself or other family members as examples. Teach your child to name some different feelings, as well as intensity of feelings, for example nervous, scared, petrified.

Besides describing in words how one feels it is also possible to tell how someone is feeling through facial expressions and body language. Introduce the idea that things happen in our bodies too when we get nervous or scared. Children can then talk about parts of their bodies that feel strange when they are scared or nervous. Recognizing that your body gets tense and that you are worried is the first step in coping with scary situations.

2. The link between thoughts and feelings

Another important thing to learn is that there is a relationship between situations, our thoughts and our feelings. For example :

Situation – its night time and you hear a noise outside

->Thought   – someone is breaking into the house

-> Feelings   – scared


Situation – its night time and you hear a noise outside

->Thought   – its my cat finally come back after her exploring

-> Feelings – excited to cuddle her and relieved that she is safe


When we are faced with a situation we have all sorts of thoughts, these are called ‘self talk‘. It is our thoughts about situations that lead to how we feel about them, not the situation itself. The same situation (as in the example above) can lead to a very different set of feelings depending on what the thought about that situation is.

Anxious kids have worrisome thoughts, they always expect the worst and they think that there is nothing that they can do about it. Parents can assist their anxious children by helping them became more aware of their self talk and to see that sometimes people can have more than one thought about the same thing.

Coping with worrying thoughts – teaching your child to think realistically

Anxiety results in twoerrors of thinking – overestimating how likely it is that something unpleasant might happen, and overestimating how bad the consequences will be if it does happen.

Thinking realistically involves :-

  • Identifying the thought behind the emotion(What is making me feel this way?, Why am I worried?, What is it about this situation that is making me worried?)
  • Looking for the evidence for the thought. One way of explaining this to children is through the analogy of a detective.       Help kids to become a detectiveover themselves, asking them to look for evidence to support or refute the worrying thought? For example, if you hear the noise outside your bedroom, you could ask yourself what makes me think that is a burglar, could there be some other reason for the noise?
  • Discuss and list alternative possibilities.
  • Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen? Do you have a plan of how you will cope with that ‘worst’

 Appropriate coping behaviour

Anxious children act in a way that keeps the anxiety going, They do this is to avoid the situation that makes them feel anxious. Besides learning to think more positively and realistically, children should be taught not to avoid anxiety-provoking situations.

Exposure is the opposite of avoidance, that is, YOU NEED TO FACE FEAR IN ORDER TO FIGHT IT.

A child needs to face fear, and stay long enough in the feared situation in order to learn that nothing bad will happen to them.

There are some key principles parents should keep in mind:

  • Parents should work together with the child to generate a range of feared situations. Fears should be faced gradually, working from lesser fears through to greater fears. These must be very specific, for example, going to the shop is too vague, it must be ‘going down to the quick shop for a cold drink after school’.       Situations must also be practical, something that the child is likely to encounter in the immediate future.
  • Each situation is experienced until it no longer provokes excessive fear. The child must stay in the feared situation ‘long enough’. It is best if they can stay until they are no longer scared, but this is not always practical. ‘long enough’ is as long as they take to learn that nothing bad happened.
  • Repetition is critical. The child must go into their feared situation over and over, simply doing it once will not remove the fear.
  • Progress will not be smooth, there will be good days and bad days, on bad days it is best not to attempt big steps but to repeat a lower step.
  • Beware of subtle avoidance and distractions for example, idiosyncratic things like carrying a lucky toy or distracting behaviour such as chewing gum. These are subtle methods of avoidance that keep the child from focussing on the fear. In order to properly overcome the fear the child must fully experience the feared situation and not be distracted from it, or have another excuse for improvement, for example, “I wasn’t scared that time because teddy was with me”. The child must be able to attribute the lack of fear to the lack of danger.
  • Consistency of rewards is important.       Reward for facing fear must be given as soon as possible. Terms of agreement must be adhered to strictly, if the child does not attempt the feared situation, do not give the reward.

Rewards are not bribes. Bribes are to get someone to do something that is for your benefit. The reward is used to increase the child’s motivation to do something that will be useful to him/her.

The techniques described above encourage independence in the anxious child as well assist with understanding emotions and appropriate coping mechanisms.   When parents work together with a psychologist and couple this with a consistent approach of open communication of feelings, appropriate contingencies, rewards and praise they provide the most effective support structures for anxiety to be alleviated.