Just when you think you’ve got this whole parenting thing down, you realize you’re parenting a child with anxiety. The turmoil of emotions begins as soon as you realize your little one isn’t just experiencing regular nervousness. How is my child ever going to have a normal life? Will my child have friends? Will my child be bullied? The panic your child experiences quickly becomes a panic of your own.
But stop right there, this isn’t your moment.
Parenting a child is no easy gig and parenting a child with anxiety is a whole different ballgame. However, it’s your child that is truly suffering; it’s your child dealing with anxiety. Your life as a parent might be harder but your child feels like life in itself is a struggle. So, take a deep breath, Moms and Dads out there. Your kids need you.
I wish I could write this anxiety blog post, reverse time and hand these anxiety tips to my parents and teachers. Life could have been much easier for me growing up with anxiety at the mere age of 7. A day with anxiety is exhausting; a life with anxiety is grueling.
The younger years are by far the worst for anxiety sufferers. They don’t even now how to be a human yet, let alone how to be a human who can’t leave the house, eat in restaurants, play with friends or go to school without panicking.
So, in the midst of frustration caused by driving across town to visit the only Walmart within a 50 km radius, only to have your little one panic and need to go home, take a moment to think about them before your own emotions. You aren’t the one dealing with anxiety; you aren’t the one dealing with the blunt force of a such an unpleasant emotion.
In the midst of hunger because you keep running to the bathroom with your little one because she feels sick every time you’re in a restaurant, think about your child before your tummy.
The words you speak play a huge role in the amount of anxiety your child experiences. It also plays a huge role in how they handle panic attacks, and how long and hard they’ll suffer for. I know this because I’ve been that child.
When parenting a child with anxiety, you have to put your anger, frustration, and stress on hold because your child needs you. They need to hear you and feel you. Your child needs to see your love and support. A negative reaction will worsen their anxiety disorder. Remember, you aren’t dealing with anxiety. They are.
So, in the heat of the moment try these simple yet powerful phrases to help your child, whiling also helping yourself with the reality of parenting a child with anxiety.
Identify the anxiety, accept the anxiety, support the child and work through the attack together.
1. “It’s okay.”
Parenting a child with anxiety can feel like anything but okay. However, it’s important to reassure your little one that this feeling they’re having is okay, they’re okay to feel it and they’re okay for feeling it.
2. “You’re okay.”
These two words can work wonders when parenting a child with anxiety. Tell it to yourself, tell it to your child – you’re okay.
3. If you need to exit the room, you can.
A lot of children feel trapped when they have an anxiety attack. They feel the need to run, but they also feel like they can’t run. They think about how you will feel or react if they have to walk out in the middle of a wedding (been there), run out of a restaurant (done that) or take 10 minutes to enter someone else’s home (you guessed it – my name is written all over it).
Tell your child that if they need to leave they can. The key is to not let them leave completely. Allow them to go outside and get a breather to calm down, but make them come back. It’s like falling off a horse. They have to get back into the situation that spooked them or they will be doomed. If they have to leave 100 times, let them but get them back in there.
4. No one is judging you.
Anxiety attacks are often caused by the fear of what people will think if they begin to panic. Let your little one know that no one is judging. No one can see someone else’s panic attack.
5. I will protect you. I love you.
Parenting a child is all about protecting them and loving them. Parenting a child with anxiety is this with a million times more reassurance. It’s honestly like having a stage 5 girlfriend or boyfriend all over again. You need to constantly reassure them that you’re there for them, you’re not going to leave them and you love them.
6. “Anxiety is just a feeling. Repeat after me – anxiety is just a feeling, You can do this. “
It’s just a feeling – a bad feeling, but a feeling nonetheless. Bring your child back to reality by telling them that although feelings hurt inside, they can hurt them on the outside. They will be okay and it’s just a feeling.
7. Let it float in one ear and out the other, like that boat we just saw on [movie] or the plane we just saw on [movie].”
This phrase is an excellent tactic to have under your mommy-belt when parenting a child with anxiety. It distracts them, as they begin to think about whatever movie you’re referring to. This tactic also allows them to visualize themselves as a boat or a plane.
If they’re still struggling, ask them, “What other movies have a boat in them?” and get their brain distracted.
8. “Let’s draw a picture of how you’re feeling.”
Children often have a hard time expressing themselves, especially when it comes to anxiety. Explaining panic is difficult as it is, explaining panic coming on at the blink of an eye can seem impossible. Encourage your child to draw their feelings, as this can be a great outlet for their feelings.
9. “Look at mommy [or Daddy]. What colour is my hair? What color are my eyebrows? How many freckles do I have on my face? Let’s count the moles on my arms. Now, let’s count the moles on your arms.”
The best way to soothe a nervous system is to distract the mind. Ask your child questions that require a bit of thinking. So go beyond asking how many eyes you have and watch their anxiety subside as they focus on something else.
10. “What do you need?”
When parenting a child with anxiety you have to work overtime to try to get them to express themselves. You have to put in time and effort to help them answer the who’s, what’s, why’s, when’s and how’s of an anxiety attack.” Ask them this question (as well as the following) during an attack. It allows you to give them the support and comfort they’re desperately looking for.
11. “Why do you think you’re having an attack?”
12. “What are you thinking?”
If it’s about the attack, tell them to change their thinking. Give them something new to think about. Distract the mind.
13. “What will happen now?”
Nothing. This is a trick question that allows you to bring them back to reality. Bring reason to their anxiety attack.
14. “Remember, it’s just a feeling. Nothing bad is going to happen. This is just a feeling.”
Remind your child that what they’re feeling is just that – a feeling. This works excellently in the midst of an attack.
15. “You are not alone. Mommy is here to help you.”
16. “Let’s fill your belly up lots of air! Show me how big it can get. Take a deep breath and push out that belly. Good job. Now hold it! Great. Now slowly let your belly out. Let’s do it again.”
Deep breathing is one of the best natural cures for anxiety. It can bring your child right out of the panic, but you may need to make it fun in order for them to follow when they’re mind is elsewhere. Tell them to envision themselves as a balloon, or a beach ball. If you’re pregnant, ask them to make a belly like mommy’s. Get creative, make silly faces and noises and connect.
17. “It’s okay to cry. Let it out.”
Allow your little one to scream. Let them cry, hoot, and holler. Heck – encourage it if the time and place calls for it because an anxiety build-up is only going to make the anxiety worse moving forward.
18. “Shake it out. Shake out your arms and now your legs.”
This calming method is a distraction tactic. It’ll also allow them to feel like they’re releasing some of that negative and anxious energy.
19. “What animal do you feel like right now? Are you roaring like a lion or running like a cheetah?” or “If you were an animal right now, which one would you be?”
When parenting a child with anxiety, you need different characterization tools that allow your child to express themselves in a way that makes sense.
20. “Anxiety can sometimes feel like a monster. What would your monster look like right now?”
Yet another characterization tactic that allows your child to express themselves. It also allows you, as the parent, to understand what they’re feeling.
21. “Let’s sing your favourite song. Can you sing with me.”
Distract the anxious mind with a pleasant experience, such as a favourite song from the radio or cartoon.
22. “Would it help if mommy hugged you right now?”
Sometimes hugs help; sometimes hugs feel overwhelming. Ask your child what will help.
23. “Can you count backward from ____.”
The secret to this diversion tactic for anyone parenting a child with anxiety is to adjust the number to the child. For example, suggest counting to 10 for little tots, counting backward from 20, 50 or 100 for older kids. The number has to be difficult enough so they have to think, but easy enough that they know it fairly effortlessly. You don’t have to actually count the entire thing (especially if it’s 100) but long enough for the anxiety to subside.
24. “Close your eyes. Let’s picture….”
Use visualization to take your child back to a happy place. Think about the amusement park or the playground you went to last week. Visualize the sounds, tastes, sights, textures – everything.
25. “You know, mommy feels like this sometimes too.”
This tactic piques their interest which distracts their mind. It also lets them know that they’re not alone. So tell them when you felt the same way and how you overcame it.
26. “Remember when you were scared…. And you got through it! Just like you are right now.”
Bring up a moment when your child was scared and remind them that they were okay. Remind them that nothing bad happened, and nothing bad is going to happen right now. It’s just a feeling.
27. “Remember when [favourite superhero] pushed the car (or broke the wall) with his hands? Let’s see if we can move it!”
Pushing on a stationary item allows your child to release the anxious tension building up inside of them.
… And when the panic attack finally ends, reassure your child that you love them. Tell them that you’re proud of them and point out that nothing bad happened. “See! You’re okay.”
Parenting a child with anxiety takes extra love, extra reassurance, and extra support. As if parenting wasn’t a hard enough gig as it is. So, when times are tough for you parenting a child with anxiety, remember what it’s like for your child living with anxiety.