The instinct to protect our kids can actually do more harm than good for an anxious child. While coping with the extreme anxieties that afflict kids with autism or ADHD is a challenge, helping both neurodiverse and neurotypical kids learn how to confront their fears is beneficial. Try implementing a few of these five effective ways to help an anxious child.
Assist and Acknowledge, but Don’t Avoid
The goal isn’t to minimize your child’s pain: their anxiety and fears are real and can be very traumatic. It’s important to respect your child’s feelings by acknowledging them. Tell your anxious child that you understand they’re scared and upset, but also that you know they can get through it and that you’re there to help them.
With autistic kids, avoiding triggers may be necessary for years until your child reaches a stage of development where you can—gently and gradually—introduce coping strategies. Some tools that can help lessen anxiety include noise-canceling headphones and fidget toys, both of which may help them work through or negate the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Monitor Your Vibe
One thing we don’t like to admit as parents is that we can be as nervous or fearful as our kids. Whether you’re afraid of spiders, dogs, horses, or storms, your children will pick up on your nervous vibe. Make sure you have your own set of coping strategies so that you can model stress management techniques for your child. Young children look to parents as a source of stability and safety, and your actions will inform their own.
Teach Coping Strategies
You may use techniques like deep breathing, positive self-talk, or visualization to help you get through stressful situations. Share these strategies with your anxious child, and practice them together.
Watch for Symptoms
Kids can’t always identify what they’re feeling and why. They often manifest symptoms of anxiety physically, with headaches or tummy aches, poor sleep, or excessive bathroom use.
Meanwhile, other kids may express anxiety by reverting to a behavior you thought they had outgrown, like thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. If your child begins to exhibit these behaviors, use open-ended questions to try to discover what might be making them feel anxious. Avoid asking leading questions that could suggest additional things to feel anxious about.
Offer Healthy Distractions
While you don’t want to dismiss a child’s fears, giving them something else to think about or do might be a useful tactic when your child feels overwhelmed. Exercise is a great stress reducer, and a favorite toy, game, or book can distract a child long enough to help the intense emotions pass. It’s a temporary fix, but taking time to play a game or go for a walk with your child shows them examples of coping techniques to use in the future.
Helping anxious children by validating their feelings and boosting their confidence will give them a long-term life skill that benefits them as they face the challenges of growing up.