10 Ways to Help Children Fight Anxiety and Gain Emotional Maturity
We've created an environment that fosters anxiety rather than resilience. The rise in anxiety reflects several societal changes and cultural shifts we've seen over the past couple of decades. Here are 10 ways to help children fight anxiety and gain emotional maturity:
1. Limit and monitor electronic use
Set up and agree upon times free of electronic usage, such as at the dinner table. When your child is feeling an unpleasant emotion, suggest an alternative to electronics, like going for a walk, having a one-on-one conversation, or playing a sport or board game. Talk to your child about the potential harmful effects of social media and set some ground rules (i.e., check privacy settings, follow each other for accountability).
2. Validate unpleasant emotions
Show children it’s okay not to be happy all the time. Validate unpleasant feelings such as anger, sadness, inferiority, and fear by letting your child freely express those emotions and by presenting them as normal, natural, and okay to feel. Ask your child open-ended questions like, “how do you feel about that?” or “what was that like for you?” and listen to her without jumping to fix issues that come up.
3. Encourage your child and convey realistic expectations
Encouragement is different from praise. Empower your child with encouraging statements - “I see you worked really hard on that project and it paid off” - rather than praise - “your project was the best one of all”. The former focuses on internal gratification, the latter on external approval, which can create mistaken beliefs in children that if they are not the very best, then they are not good enough.
4. Challenge your child to succeed in a healthy and balanced way
What are your family values and how do you and your child define success? It’s easy to be lured into fierce competition for brand name colleges and companies. But, if a child’s sense of worth and success lies in what college or company accepts them, falling short of this goal can have highly detrimental effects on her mental health. Even meeting this goal can fail to result in satisfaction, as there really is no end to one-upping the competition. Combat this with messages of unconditional love and value placed on the child’s virtues and strengths and not the name of his college or his job title.
5. Process emotions together and model coping skills
Have regular, intentional, and deep conversations with your child about feelings. Be open with him about your feelings and ask about his. Use ‘I statements’ and create space for your child to come to you with any concerns. Discuss with him healthy coping skills, like talking it out with a social support or therapist, staying physically active, setting aside time to do activities he enjoys, and finding balance with school, extracurricular activities, family, friends, electronics, and leisure time.
6. Let children develop their own defenses against hardship
Although the urge to rescue your child from any difficulty may be strong, doing this at every turn can prevent her from building her own defenses that will serve her well in life. Always providing a safety net under her can teach her she cannot overcome obstacles on her own. Next time your child forgets to turn in a homework assignment, hold off on doing it for her and let her struggle through finding a solution to the problem. Leave your child room to make mistakes and face hardship and see how resilient and resourceful she can be.
7. Lessen fears through gentle exposure
Desensitization to fears can occur through gradual confrontation. Without exposing your child to harm or danger, gently pushing him to face his fears can empower him to conquer them. Don’t pull him off the field the moment he expresses discomfort, but rather encourage him to complete the season. Let him practice with a smaller crowd before the big recital and tell him you’ll be right there to support him. Overcoming fear leads to greater feelings of competence and confidence.
8. Do your own emotional work and self-care
You have to fill your own cup before you can pour into someone else’s. Being there emotionally for your child necessitates exploring your own feelings and how they affect your parenting decisions. Highly anxious parents can pass anxiety down to their children, so it’s important to do your own therapy and self-care to prevent this. Fill your cup through making time for healthy activities you enjoy, like going to the spa or getting coffee with a friend, and address mental health issues and wounds from your childhood that may be influencing your parenting.
9. Allow for free play and alone time
Give your child free time for unstructured and spontaneous play. It is through self-directed play that children explore and express feelings, gain independence, and feel important. Let your child unleash her creativity and competence by allowing for free play time with family, peers, or by herself. Take her lead and don’t be afraid to be silly with her.
10. Don’t ‘parentify’ your child
Children are meant to be children, not mini adults. Unclear family roles, such as a child adopting more of a parent role, can wreak havoc on the family system and place unfair responsibility on kids before they’re ready. Assume your role as the parent and adult, being both a leader and a nurturer. Be gentle and caring, but firm, with parenting decisions and discipline. Don’t expect your child to know all the answers or have the emotional maturity to take charge within the family.