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2017 resolutions for parenting your anxious child

Barbara‘s work has appeared in Salon, The Christian Science Monitor, and numerous now-defunct websites. She's always a little anxious, and lives with her family in California.

If your child is a worrier, here's how to make the new year a little calmer

Parenting an anxious child, even with the best intentions, can grind you into a rut of reaction and negativity. With the new year comes the opportunity to break free of old patterns and reframe how you and your child tackle their anxiety together.

Say it with me:  “This year, I will... ”

... Embrace anxiety as a fact of life

Think of learning to deal with anxiety not unlike learning to walk. You can’t carry your kid around all their lives, and you certainly can’t do it emotionally. Help them learn how to balance on those legs. While you (so understandably!) may want to eliminate your child’s anxiety all together, you simply can't. Life has stressors. Your goal is to help your child learn how to modulate their anxiety and develop tools to deal with whatever comes along.

“Some kids have more anxious temperaments than others, so they'll worry more,” says Dawn Friedman, a Columbus, Ohio-based counselor who works with children, teens and adults. “Helping them to understand and manage their anxiety will serve them better in the long-term since it's likely to crop up again in the future.” 

More: Kids and anxiety: When they need help and when it's just kid stuff

... Respect those feelings, and then build on them

You know you can’t argue away that anxiety, but sometimes you can’t help yourself. If your child is melting down about taking the bus to school, listen with empathy. Instead of arguing, validate. “Taking the bus seems to be stirring up feelings for you. What are some of your feelings?” 

First, recognize the behavior for what it is. “By far, anxiety (often masked as problem behaviors) is the No. 1 reason kids are seeing me,” says Friedman. Next, help frame what the worry is about: Is he concerned that he’ll get off on the wrong stop? Is she scared that she’ll have to ask someone for help?

Rather than handing out solutions, walk your child through the thought process people typically use to solve issues that may arise. Let your child be part of the brainstorming. What about asking the driver to tell him which stop is his? Can she use her smartphone to follow her trip progress on a real-time map? Proactive problem-solving can go a long way toward building confidence and lessening that anxiety.

... Expect emotional growth

It won’t always be this hard. You and your kid both need to hear this... frequently. Express confidence to your child that they’ll be OK, and that with practice, their anxiety levels will drop over time. Be realistic — they’ll feel safer knowing you’re not expecting instant confidence and that you won’t push them to do something they can’t (yet) handle. And you need, too, to know this will get better. (You probably won’t be carrying your 6-foot-2, college-aged, hockey-goalie son on your shoulders to help him get past the neighbor’s barking dog. Probably). Hang in there!

More: How to ease your child's back-to-school anxiety

... Avoid sabotage

We’ve all caught ourselves doing this one. “Are you worried about your math test?” “Are you anxious about the field trip?” Stick with open-ended question, like, “How are you feeling about the field trip?” This is also a great time to help brainstorm those solution-based ideas. Also? You need to honestly assess how you’re feeding into the message that your kid can’t handle a potentially anxiety-provoking situation. When you trail behind the school bus in your car or fall sleep every night on the floor below the toddler bed, you’re giving your kid the message that their fear is right — they can’t handle that anxiety.

... Reinforce calm, even nonverbally (especially nonverbally)

Sure, you say all the positives, but what’s your body language shrieking? Watch those gasps, sighs and grim facial expressions. If your child is afraid of the neighbor’s cat, are you tensing up at the sight of Ginger, regularly crossing the street or otherwise telegraphing that the appearance of the cat signals meltdown time? Take a moment to recalibrate your own behavior. Anxiety can run in families, and you need to take care of your own anxiety too. Remember that your child takes cues from you, and you know they’re watching you like a hawk.

... Ask for help

Many children suffer periods of anxiety — they're part of typical cognitive development. But for some children, the anxiety is so intense that it seriously interferes with their lives and with the entire household. We know a family who couldn’t eat outside for a year due to the 5-year-old’s fear of wasps — but at least they could enjoy the view from a 10th-floor restaurant, unlike the family of the 9-year-old terrified of elevators. When life is that constrained, it’s not only OK to get help, it’s unkind not to — for all of you! Untreated serious anxiety typically gets worse over time.

“Anxiety becomes a clinical issue when it gets in the way of your child's education or relationships, but it can be tough to know when to get help,” says Friedman. “I tell parents that if you're wondering if your child's anxiety is developmentally normal or is a cause for concern, talk to their teacher or give your pediatrician a call. They can help you figure out what's typical and what needs intervention.”

Intervention may take the form of professionals who offer cognitive behavioral therapy or medication (often short-term), or it may be as simple as you and your child going over some gentle, child-friendly anxiety workbooks. More than one mom has suggested What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner with Bonnie Matthews, but there are hundreds and hundreds of books out there, both fiction and nonfiction, that address child anxiety in helpful ways.

The bottom line? There is a lot of help out there for your child — neither you nor they have to grapple with anxiety issues alone. And maybe that’s the resolution that’s most important. Acknowledge that together, you can take advantage of every resource available to make 2017 a less anxious year.

More: Are you gaslighting your own kid? 6 signs you might be

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