As adults, we can monitor our feelings of anxiety and work to manage them. Children are often not cognitively capable enough yet to recognize feelings of anxiety, much less know how to control them. How does children’s anxiety manifest? Often it is by withdrawing, avoiding situations, or even acting out through tantrum behaviors or crying. It is distressing as a parent to experience a child who is anxious. We want to protect our children and minimize uncomfortable feelings for them.
However, just as it is important to allow children to experience failure and disappointment at times, it is important not to over-shelter children from feelings of anxiety. The challenge is to balance exposing children to stimuli that might make them feel anxious without causing more trauma. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt very anxious and nervous? The more you thought about it, the more nervous you became. However, once you came through the other side, you realized it might not have been as bad as you expected, or maybe it was scary, but you survived. Examples might be giving speeches in public, interviewing for a job, or attending a party where you know no one. As adults, we can recognize that something is causing us fear and use techniques such as visualization and relaxation to get us through. I know one thing I do is picture myself after the event and how I will feel at that time. We can prepare children on their level as well.
Recently, one of my children was to perform in his first piano recital. He was very well prepared, the audience would only be families of fellow performers, and it was in a safe place—church. However, he tends to worry excessively and this was definitely anxiety-provoking. He did not want to participate in the recital at all and his piano teacher was willing to let him opt out. However, I knew that by avoiding the situation, it would make him more prone to avoiding similar situations in the future (behaviorists call this reinforcement; something that increases the likelihood that a behavior will repeat. For him, avoidance would be reinforcing). We told him he needed to participate in the recital, but could perform just one song. Although he expressed fear in the days leading up, we reassured him that he would do great, was well-prepared, and that if he messed up he could simply start over. Of course, the day of the recital he did a fantastic job. After it was over, he even commented that it was not as bad as he had expected and made sure we had videotaped him.
There is not a quick fix to anxiety and it is something that many people will struggle with all their lives. However, similar to learning disabilities, it is important to teach them how to compensate and use strategies to get around the anxiety. One way is to gradually expose them over time. For example, a child who is afraid of ever being away from parents might benefit from being left for very short periods of time with a family friend, then gradually lengthening that amount of time. While parents are away, the child may ask frequently when they will return, but offering distractions and fun things to do might be helpful. Although feelings of anxiety may never fully go away, they will lessen with time and the child will learn how to get through. Something else that can be helpful is reassuring the child that the parent has a cellphone and can be contacted if needed. Perhaps the parent can even send a text message at first. For children who experience such significant anxiety that these interventions are not helpful, consultation with a child psychologist may be necessary to properly diagnose and treat the symptoms.