All children worry. In fact, worry in itself is not bad. In some situations, worry and anxiety are helpful! For example, if your child sees a bear while hiking in the Wissahickon, their anxiety may tell them to run away. If your child is nervous about an upcoming math test, they may choose to study instead of watching TikTok. Helpful anxiety can warn your child of potential threats and motivate them to focus on their goals.
So, when does anxiety become unhelpful? Anxiety is unhelpful if it keeps your child from hiking in the Wissahickon or attending school on test days. In short, anxiety is unhelpful if it gets in the way of life, either for the child or their family. Anxiety can get in the way for kids when it leads them to avoid things that they normally enjoy. It also gets in the way when kids have trouble enjoying activities because they’re always worrying. A child’s anxiety can also get in the way for their caregivers and siblings. Perhaps you have changed your life (e.g., not going on a date with your partner) or family plans (e.g., canceling a family vacation) to make your child less worried.
If you think that your child’s anxiety is unhelpful, there are things you can do at home to break the anxiety cycle:
Encourage your child to approach, rather than avoid, things that make them anxious.
Avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation can make a child (and caregiver) feel better in the moment. But avoidance makes anxiety worse over time. For example, a child becomes anxious before getting on stage for a ballet recital, and their caregiver lets them skip the performance. This sends a message that the child should feel afraid. It also takes away a chance to learn that the child can do hard and scary things. Instead, a caregiver could say, “I can tell this makes you nervous, and I know you can handle it.”
Do not tell your child that the situation will go perfectly.
Without being able to see into the future, you are not able to promise your child that they won’t trip on stage. It’s tempting to convince your child that their feared situation won’t happen. Instead, let them know that you believe they can handle it, and that doing scary things gets easier with practice.
Show your child how you manage your anxiety.
Children learn a lot about life from watching their caregivers, including how to cope with anxiety. Let’s say you are feeling stressed about work. You could say, “I am feeling anxious about the amount of work I have, so I will try to break down my project into smaller steps.”
Ask for help.
Sometimes, a child has unhelpful anxiety even after you’ve made these changes at home. It may be time to ask for professional help. There are many types of therapy, and some work better than others. For anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with exposures works best. At the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University, we offer CBT with exposures to children ages 7-17 who are experiencing unhelpful anxiety.
CBT lasts around 16 weeks and is tailored to each child’s unique fears. During the first half of therapy, children (and caregivers) learn coping skills. Some coping skills include relaxation, problem-solving, and challenging anxious thinking. During the second half of therapy, children put their coping skills into action in exposure therapy. The therapist helps the child slowly face their fears. The goal of CBT with exposure therapy is not to remove anxiety (remember, worry in itself is not bad), but for children to learn that they can handle their anxiety. Throughout therapy, kids practice what they’re learning in therapy and at home.
If you are worried that your child may have unhelpful anxiety or would like more information, reach out to us at the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic (CAADC) at Temple University via telephone (215-204-7165) or email (email@example.com). All CAADC clients participate in research. Due to COVID-19, we are offering therapy via telehealth. We welcome families from all backgrounds.
Authors: Erin E. Dunning & Margaret E. Crane, Clinicians at the Temple University Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic (CAADC)
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