9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try

As all the kids line up to go to school, your son, Timmy, turns to you and says, “I don’t want to take the bus. My stomach hurts. Please don’t make me go.” You cringe and think, Here we go again. What should be a simple morning routine explodes into a daunting challenge.

You look at Timmy and see genuine terror. You want to comfort him. You want to ease the excessive worry that’s become part and parcel of his everyday life. First, you try logic. “Timmy, we walk an extra four blocks to catch this bus because this driver has an accident-free driving record!” He doesn’t budge.

You provide reassurance. “I promise you’ll be OK. Timmy, look at me… you trust me, right?” Timmy nods. A few seconds later he whispers, “Please don’t make me go.”

You resort to anger: “Timothy Christopher, you will get on this bus RIGHT NOW, or there will be serious consequences. No iPad for one week!” He looks at you as if you’re making him walk the plank. He climbs onto the bus, defeated. You feel terrible.

Child Anxiety Relief GoZen

If any of this sounds familiar, know you are not alone. Most parents would move mountains to ease their child’s pain. Parents of kids with anxiety would move planets and stars as well. It hurts to watch your child worry over situations that, frankly, don’t seem that scary. Here’s the thing: To your child’s mind, these situations are genuinely threatening. And even perceived threats can create a real nervous system response. We call this response anxiety and I know it well.

I’d spent the better part of my childhood covering up a persistent, overwhelming feeling of worry until, finally, in my early twenties, I decided to seek out a solution. What I’ve learned over the last two decades is that many people suffer from debilitating worry. In fact, 40 million American adults, as well as 1 in 8 children, suffer from anxiety. Many kids miss school, social activities and a good night’s rest just from the worried thoughts in their head. Many parents suffer from frustration and a feeling of helplessness when they witness their child in this state day in, day out.

What I also learned is that while there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety, there are a plethora of great research-based techniques that can help manage it — many of which are simple to learn. WAIT! Why didn’t my parents know about this? Why didn’t I know about it? Why don’t they teach these skills in school?

I wish I could go back in time and teach the younger version of myself how to cope, but of course, that’s not possible. What is possible is to try to reach as many kids and parents as possible with these coping skills. What is possible is to teach kids how to go beyond just surviving to really finding meaning, purpose and happiness in their lives. To this end, I created an anxiety relief program for kids called GoZen! Here are 9 ideas straight from that program that parents of anxious children can try right away:

1. Stop Reassuring Your Child

Your child worries. You know there is nothing to worry about, so you say, “Trust me. There’s nothing to worry about.” Done and done, right? We all wish it were that simple. Why does your reassurance fall on deaf ears? It’s actually not the ears causing the issue. Your anxious child desperately wants to listen to you, but the brain won’t let it happen. During periods of anxiety, there is a rapid dump of chemicals and mental transitions executed in your body for survival. One by-product is that the prefrontal cortex — or more logical part of the brain — gets put on hold while the more automated emotional brain takes over. In other words, it is really hard for your child to think clearly, use logic or even remember how to complete basic tasks. What should you do instead of trying to rationalize the worry away? Try something I call the FEEL method:

  • Freeze: pause and take some deep breaths with your child. Deep breathing can help reverse the nervous system response.
  • Empathize: anxiety is scary. Your child wants to know that you get it.
  • Evaluate: once your child is calm, it’s time to figure out possible solutions.
  • Let Go: Let go of your guilt; you are an amazing parent giving your child the tools to manage their worry.

2. Highlight Why Worrying is Good

Remember, anxiety is tough enough without a child believing that Something is wrong with me. Many kids even develop anxiety about having anxiety. Teach your kids that worrying does, in fact, have a purpose.

When our ancestors were hunting and gathering food there was danger in the environment, and being worried helped them avoid attacks from the saber-toothed cat lurking in the bush. In modern times, we don’t have a need to run from predators, but we are left with an evolutionary imprint that protects us: worry.

Worry is a protection mechanism. Worry rings an alarm in our system and helps us survive danger. Teach your kids that worry is perfectly normal, it can help protect us, and everyone experiences it from time to time. Sometimes our system sets off false alarms, but this type of worry (anxiety) can be put in check with some simple techniques.

3. Bring Your Child’s Worry to Life

As you probably know, ignoring anxiety doesn’t help. But bringing worry to life and talking about it like a real person can. Create a worry character for your child. In GoZen we created Widdle the Worrier. Widdle personifies anxiety. Widdle lives in the old brain that is responsible for protecting us when we’re in danger. Of course, sometimes Widdle gets a little out of control and when that happens, we have to talk some sense into Widdle. You can use this same idea with a stuffed animal or even role-playing at home.

Personifying worry or creating a character has multiple benefits. It can help demystify this scary physical response children experience when they worry. It can reactivate the logical brain, and it’s a tool your children can use on their own at any time.

4. Teach Your Child to Be a Thought Detective

Remember, worry is the brain’s way of protecting us from danger. To make sure we’re really paying attention, the mind often exaggerates the object of the worry (e.g., mistaking a stick for a snake). You may have heard that teaching your children to think more positively could calm their worries. But the best remedy for distorted thinking is not positive thinking; it’s accurate thinking. Try a method we call the 3Cs:

  • Catch your thoughts: Imagine every thought you have floats above your head in a bubble (like what you see in comic strips). Now, catch one of the worried thoughts like “No one at school likes me.”
  • Collect evidence: Next, collect evidence to support or negate this thought. Teach your child not to make judgments about what to worry about based only on feelings. Feelings are not facts. (Supporting evidence: “I had a hard time finding someone to sit with at lunch yesterday.” Negating evidence: “Sherry and I do homework together–she’s a friend of mine.”)
  • Challenge your thoughts: The best (and most entertaining) way to do this is to teach your children to have a debate within themselves.

5. Allow Them to Worry

As you know, telling your children not to worry won’t prevent them from doing so. If your children could simply shove their feelings away, they would. But allowing your children to worry openly, in limited doses, can be helpful. Create a daily ritual called “Worry Time” that lasts 10 to 15 minutes. During this ritual encourage your children to release all their worries in writing. You can make the activity fun by decorating a worry box. During worry time there are no rules on what constitutes a valid worry; anything goes. When the time is up, close the box and say good-bye to the worries for the day.

6. Help Them Go from What If to What Is

You may not know this, but humans are capable of time travel. In fact, mentally we spend a lot of time in the future. For someone experiencing anxiety, this type of mental time travel can exacerbate the worry. A typical time traveler asks what-if questions: “What if I can’t open my locker and I miss class?” “What if Suzy doesn’t talk to me today?”

Research shows that coming back to the present can help alleviate this tendency. One effective method of doing this is to practice mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness brings a child from what if to what is. To do this, help your child simply focus on their breath for a few minutes.

7. Avoid Avoiding Everything that Causes Anxiety

Do your children want to avoid social events, dogs, school, planes or basically any situation that causes anxiety? As a parent, do you help them do so? Of course! This is natural. The flight part of the flight-fight-freeze response urges your children to escape the threatening situation. Unfortunately, in the long run, avoidance makes anxiety worse.

So what’s the alternative? Try a method we call laddering. Kids who are able to manage their worry break it down into manageable chunks. Laddering uses this chunking concept and gradual exposure to reach a goal.

Let’s say your child is afraid of sitting on the swings in the park. Instead of avoiding this activity, create mini-goals to get closer to the bigger goal (e.g., go to the edge of the park, then walk into the park, go to the swings, and, finally, get on a swing). You can use each step until the exposure becomes too easy; that’s when you know it’s time to move to the next rung on the ladder.

8. Help Them Work Through a Checklist

What do trained pilots do when they face an emergency? They don’t wing it (no pun intended!); they refer to their emergency checklists. Even with years of training, every pilot works through a checklist because, when in danger, sometimes it’s hard to think clearly.

When kids face anxiety they feel the same way. Why not create a checklist so they have a step-by-step method to calm down? What do you want them to do when they first feel anxiety coming on? If breathing helps them, then the first step is to pause and breathe. Next, they can evaluate the situation. In the end, you can create a hard copy checklist for your child to refer to when they feel anxious.

9. Practice Self-Compassion

Watching your child suffer from anxiety can be painful, frustrating, and confusing. There is not one parent that hasn’t wondered at one time or another if they are the cause of their child’s anxiety. Here’s the thing, research shows that anxiety is often the result of multiple factors (i.e., genes, brain physiology, temperament, environmental factors, past traumatic events, etc.). Please keep in mind, you did not cause your child’s anxiety, but you can help them overcome it.

Toward the goal of a healthier life for the whole family, practice self-compassion. Remember, you’re not alone, and you’re not to blame. It’s time to let go of debilitating self-criticism and forgive yourself. Love yourself. You are your child’s champion.

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60 thoughts on “9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try”

  1. Excellent advice.
    Plus from my 50+ years experience in child care and 20 years as a flower essence practitioner I have found many flower essences can return the child to his/her own strengths very quickly .eg a few drops of Cherry Plum tapped in on the back of the neck (middle shoulder line) if a child is out of control emotionally can be an amazing transformation.
    Also EFT (emotional freedom technique) works wonders.

    • Delya, this article is about evidenced-based responses to anxiety. I really am afraid that there is no scientific evidence of any value supporting the notion of flower essences that goes beyond the placebo effect. Great it works for you but really…

    • As an Australian Bush flower Practitioner, I could not agree with you more as in the result the flowers have. Bach flowers & Animals Essence also have quite an amazing affect. Listening and understanding the child as “oppose to just sweeping it off” also really helps. If you can totally get to the level where the child is “well hello”….. it works.

  2. So I missed this article when my kids were younger! Now 18 and 21 both have anxiety, how do I address this anxiety for the older set?

      • Oh, sweet girl- your sister is so lucky to have you. My Little brother saved me just knowing that he loved me, when I felt my parents didn’t. Bipolar Jak

      • I had bad anxiety and worried all the time. What helped me was noticing where the tension was in my body. Like my jaw would be tense, my shoulders would creep up between my ears. So I would release them. You can release tension in your jaw by tipping your head back and letting your jaw drop open.
        I learned self talk, asking myself a bunch of questions. Is my worrying going to help me or fix anything in my life? Will my worrying help the person I am worried about be better? Will it change anything? Does it make my life better now, or will it in the future. Will this stress, fear , anxiousness ever help me to be happy? Will it help me to become the person I want to be? No it won’t!!! I choose freedom!!! I choose to think of something else every time I start to tense up. I choose to create other thoughts instead that bring me joy like that time I went to… I had a great visit with… someone gave me… that time I… This really helps me I hope it helps your sister.

        • i focus on my body too. instead of trying to come up with solutions or guilt myself as to why im anxious about everything id simply relax my hands relax my toes relax my jaw and breath. when my focus became on shifting my body to a calmer state my mind followed. by focusing on my mind never made my body follow suit. i used to need to do a b and c every day to feel like i could cope with the things i couldnt control then i had my daughter and could longer dictate my life like i had and i was sooo hard, but having to actually face my fears/the things that caused anxiety made them go away. bit by bit i realised that nothing bad happened when i took away my coping mechanisms and actually did the things i had been avoiding. my duaghter has jsut been diagnosed with GAD and its hard to not feel responsible genetically and given the first few years of her life i was really anxious, but i let go of that guilt- because well- id say i no longer have anxiety and having dealt with it can help me support her through it and beyond it too:)

  3. Great article. Most anxiety stems from a fear of “not good enough” and can be completely cleared, for life, with a handful of hypnosis sessions.

      • So agree with you! If anything, scents can distract the thought patterns and give enough time to practice CBT, relaxation techniques etc. as a retired therapist, I don’t reject any techniques, as long as they not do any damaging to the child.

  4. Also investigate endocrine imbalances & vitamin & mineral deficiencies. NHS does not do it properly, but we have the internet…

  5. My 13 yo daughter calls her anxiety Donald Trump! It forces its way in, takes over, says very silly things and is very difficult to see past.

      • Starting any sentence with “you are a bad parent” can hardly be helpful.

        It is healthy to teach a child discernment. It is healthy to teach a child that regardless of position, there are behaviors that are not worthy of respect or imitation. Telling a child that every person in a position of authority must be respected and obeyed at all times is dangerous.

        • You are 100 % accurate! Our pres is a joke, let it be known. A “bad” parent would be the dishonest one promising perfect when NOTHING in nature , especially human nature is “perfect”! Get over yourself, and have some grace; pun intended fully!

      • are you kidding??? that is likely one of the most contradictory statements I have seen in a long time.
        You completely and blatantly ‘disrespected’ this parent.

      • He was voted in by the electoral college not the American people. If you count up the actually vote of the people, Hillary won the votes of the people. He won the states that had the most electoral college votes. That how he got in.

  6. I really like the idea of using laddering to help your child’s anxieties by exposing them to what makes them anxious little-by-little. I’m sure that dealing with anxiety in children is difficult, and while it might seem cruel, I too believe that they will be better off in the long-run by being exposed to what gives them anxiety. I also like that laddering helps children set goals that help them both deal with anxiety and feel like they’ve accomplished something. I’ll have to give laddering a try if I ever have a child that has to deal with anxiety. Thanks for the great advice!

  7. Excellent article! It just lays out simply current thinking about anxiety and depression relief. This is to get you started. Good, simple but deep questions. It really does apply to anyone you might think could use a “time out” – a time to take it easy on themselves, relax a little bit. You don’t don’t have to make a cute box, or a personal journal, or whatever. Just sit and do something like doodle or dance around the living room a minute. Including any age of person or soul. I’m keeping it as a reference.

  8. Going into school is what makes my 5 year old anxious. Can anyone share an example of using laddering for school? Is this an effective approach? i.e., Walk into school with mom, stay an hour, leave. Walk into school with mom, stay an hour alone. Walk into school with mom, stay 4 hours. etc until we get to where he can get out of the car at carpool drop off, walk into class alone, stay all day alone, until time to get picked up at afternoon carpool. Or am I being silly and overcomplicating things, trying to avoid the trigger too much?

    • I would Keep doing what you are doing, break it down into little steps/ goals.
      Maybe make some kind of reward chart when he ticks off goals.
      I have a 13 yo who started High School 2016 ( Australia) so start year in Feb & start of 3rd term went from being ok to couldnt even get out if the house!
      4th term we had gotten to the point where she would go into school but I was spending the days with her up in a meeting room doing schoolwork.
      A big long journey. Their fear is very real & very frightening for them. Do what works for you & your child. He is only 5!! In the big picture he is still a baby………
      Get professional help & work alongside the school in helping him deal with his anxiety…..
      In Oz 4 & 5 year olds usually have parents drop them off & stay for a 15 min settle in period doing puzzles & books. Helps ease them in to it 🙂
      Our school year starts again in Feb….no idea what will happen with my girl but I will be with her every step of the way. It’s hard, exhausting & frustrating but you just have to stay positive & keep working with them. We got given a great book which you could read with your son called ” dealing with it” helps them to recognize the signs & ways to push ” it” away. Good luck with it all xxx

      • Hi Laura
        Just reading your comments to help someone out
        I have a 20 year old and 15 year old both girls
        Both have had anxiety and panic attacks at times sometimes often and have most definitely missed alot of schooling as a single parent that works odd shifts day night morning unfortunately I can’t be there day by day to take my daughter to school
        Waking her up is a nightmare lol
        Omg I wish they didn’t have access to all this technology it keeps them up so late then can’t get up
        Where do you get the book you mentioned
        Was it worthwhile any advice would be wonderful.
        Thank you so much
        With Kind Regards

        Mark Flanagan

  9. Water balloons work for us. My daughter is now 5, perceptive and bright as always. When she was 3 her father walked out without warning after 16 years. Almost immediately she regressed, had panic attacks. I was floored with shock and grief at the same time. I got help immediately from a child psych, who saw her for 4 weeks, and this gave us both the grasping points to get through the immediate crisis.
    Since then, what I’ve found best for her, is helping her fill up a water balloon to almost busting point. I tie a string at the top, she chooses a marker pen colour, and draws her feelings on the ballon then we take it outside and depending on the feeling she’s having, she’ll either smash it onto the ground, throw it against the garden wall, or kiss it, and toss it as high into the air as she can. There’s an explosion, whatever she does, and it seems to help her, both of us.

  10. No.5 works for me. I used to be a very anxious person until I heard about this worry time. I began to create worry time, always when I drove to work, listing everything out loud I was worried about. It took half an hour at first, then 20 minutes, eventually 5, until I didn’t need it. I have revisited it during difficult periods in my life and it’s a miracle worker. I’m going to use it with my young son. I highly recommend.

  11. I am not new to parenting! I have 5 children that have families on their own, and they are doing great. But my youngest has thrown a curve ball on me, leaving me feeling helpless as a parent. He has really bad anxiety and depression, and he does not know what to do and how to handle it. Sometimes he will yell at me or no reason, then cry about it for weeks. He really just feels out of control. I have been putting off doing anything about it because I thought somehow he would figure it out. I did exactly what this article says not to do! I kept on reassuring him. I keep on telling him things will be alright and to keep going. I will now stop and take deep breaths with him. I will empathize that anxiety is scary, and take time to listen to him and figure things out. I think I will also try to find a place that has counseling that he could go to. I love him, and I feel horrible that he has to carry such a burden.

    • Wow my heart goes out to you momma! You do the best you can with the information you have and it all comes from a place of love. Kudos to you for keeping up the search for solutions and hopefully you find something that clicks and things get better soon!

  12. This hits so close to home for me. Thank you for the great suggestions. My daughter has been struggling with school-related anxiety for over a year and it has been a long road. I convinced her to write out her feelings as to why she hates school so much and posted her letter on my blog. It may be of interest to some readers that they are not alone! https://www.fabulousclassroom.com/2018/11/teenage-anxiety-a-letter-from-my-14-year-old-daughter/

  13. My 5 year old granddaughter has always seemed anxious. She still has to have a fuzzy blanket and sucks two fingers to help calm herself. She has done this since birth. Recently she has started worrying about dying and she thinks she will die. If she has a bout of diarrhea or smashes her finger she immediately panics and gets so upset begging not to die and it is heart wrenching because I was the same as a child and didn’t get control of my anxiety and panic attacks until my twenty’s. Of course I talk her through it and get her mind on happy thoughts but I’m not sure how to help her to not think of death. Has anyone else experienced this problem? How did you help your child? Appreciate your help.

  14. My 12yr is suffering from stress related issues and adhd, been on and off with meds and was wondering if anyone has advice on focusing , or any good med recommendations, Straterra has worked the best but had to stop due to depression but he was not taking antidepressants at the time, adderall, riidalin and Vyansnes don’t work, please advice?

  15. Ha, How did trump find his way in this convo? Are you watching CNN with your daughter? My kid is 13 with anxiety but it’s not over politics because I try to let her be 13. This article was good. Thank you for your input

  16. My 23 year old daughter suffers from anxiety. I suffered from anxiety as well it went away by the age of 22 I didn’t do anything for my anxiety. My daughter is getting professional help, but I also want to help her and I don’t know what to do. Thank you for sharing your own experiences.

  17. Love the article, but not the off-topic, crazy comments! Beside the fact that I read them all! Ha! My daughter is 8 and usually very logical. These past couple weeks she’s been crying 5-6 times a day. I’m going to try a couple of these strategies and see how it goes. Thank you!

  18. I cannot thankyou enough for posting and making available such great advice and strategies. It has been a lifesaver for us. My 8 year old developed anxiety during Covid and now he has gone beyond what I can offer him as a parent. Your advice has hugely helped, even implementing strategy no 1 has been a game changer. THANKYOU

  19. I wanna maybe talk to somone about how I feel and when I read this and thought of my mom doing this I cried I’m still crying I would be AMAZING if she just let me have a day off of the world and didn’t ask why I don’t like school I would love that but I’m 12 almost 13 and offend think it’s hormones and me being dramatic but I’m always so tired and when I say things like this on-anything I immediately regret it but I’m trying not to

  20. Another good way to handle fears is to teach your child to turn them into cartoons that make them laugh.. eg i’m scared of falling off the cliff.. you say, but then we can spread our wings and fly like superman!!!

  21. This helps me a lot so much that I might have so much information I may lose my anxiety(I’m too young for this I’m not even a teenager yet)I need to lose my anxiety-_-


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