Knowing how to parent a child who demonstrates signs of worry can be difficult without the proper training and tools. The worry may be due to something considered normal for his or her age or something deeper such as the result of having experienced loss, abuse, neglect, or trauma. Whether your child is afraid of the dark, afraid to go to school, afraid to try something new, or unsure of how to manage and cope in certain situations, there is hope and there is help. The Gladney Center for Adoption works hard to arm parents and professionals with the effective and appropriate tools and techniques they need to support children who are dealing with a variety of problems. One of the most common issues children face is anxiety.

In Season 1, Episode 12 of the Gladney reFRAMED podcast, Emily Morehead, LPC, sits down with health expert Pam Dyson, LPC-S, RPT-S, to talk about reframing anxiety in children. Pam, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and a registered play therapist supervisor; she specializes in working with children ages 3 to 12 years at her private practice, the DFW Center for Play Therapy Training, in Plano, TX.

Is my child okay?

To begin the discussion, parents need to take a deep breath. Age-appropriate anxiety in children is more common than you may think. Your child may experience very common fears such as being afraid of the dark or thunder and lightning or your child may experience something more complicated. When parents aren’t able to calm their child anymore and his or her anxiety becomes overwhelming to the point that daily family life begins to be overtaken by the child’s fear(s), then parents need to seek out professional help.

This becomes especially concerning when there are other children in the family and their lives become impacted too. One thing we don’t want to avoid is to letting anxiety run our families. We don’t want to send the message that we can’t or won’t do something because it’s too scary. That’s a bad message to send to anyone at any age. It’s also unhealthy for children who think that because they do not have to do the same things as other family members or friends that they are different in some way, and maybe there is something wrong with them. At the same time, it’s also not healthy to force a child into something that seems to be causing undue stress. Many parents feel that pushing a child into a situation is good for him or her; but by doing so, you may be increasing the anxiety or generating additional stress to the point of creating panic attacks for a child who is struggling. Instead, take a deep breath and work with the child to go at his or her pace working slowly toward dealing with the experience for which she or he expresses fear.

The Difference Between Chronic Anxiety and Experiencing Something New

It’s important to understand and recognize the difference between a normal fear or anxiety (typical phases children may go through that are age-appropriate) such as the common fear or stress that accompanies going to school or the dentist or a new place for the first time versus something more concerning.

Once you’re able to identify what the anxiety is, parents can take steps to help reduce fear or anxiety by strategizing ways to help a child prepare for or deal with it before it becomes a problem. For example, in the case of starting at a new school, one solution may be to make an appointment to visit the school or meet with your child’s teacher before the first day of school. By helping a child to become familiar with a situation before actively engaging in the activity, you can alleviate the fear or at least diminish it.

For parents who are seeing their child’s anxiety show up in the classroom, the Adoption.com article, “IEP Ideas” offers a step-by-step guide to help a child experiencing anxiety with homework, test-taking, social skills, and relationships with peers.

The difference between chronic anxiety versus an age-appropriate response to trying something new such as school or other similar activities is that chronic anxiety seems to be recurring. At this point, it’s important to question what else the child may be dealing with to trigger this fear over and over again. It can be common for children who have a difficult time transitioning after placement to experience anxiety when they go through a change to their routine even when they have experienced change before.

Helping Your Child Navigate Anxiety

It may sound like a lot of work to be so proactive in your child’s life and to stay a step ahead in order to guide him or her through a tough time each and every time. However, most parents, whether they know it or not, develop a knack for noticing a child’s moods and reactions. Parents tend to know when to step up or step back depending on the child’s threshold for trying new things or being in new situations.

Pam suggests that before parents begin helping their kids navigate stress, parents need to remember to calm themselves because in many cases, anxiety runs in families. A parent very well may be unintentionally adding to his or her child’s stress without even knowing it. For example, helping your child who is afraid of dogs to overcome his or her fear may not be easy for a parent who was also afraid of dogs as a child (or who is still afraid as an adult). This situation can really stir up some uncomfortable feelings.

We know that children do better with structure and routine. That’s why many parents try to plan out every aspect of their child’s day from the time the child wakes up until he or she goes to bed, this includes meal times and meal plans, nap times, playtime, and everything else. Parents will often talk to a child before heading out to the playground to ensure that the child knows what to expect and what’s expected of him or her. Pam talks about how predictability can be a good thing. A good way for parents to strategically prepare anxious kids is by helping them to know what to expect. Peeling away any uncertainty or fear before it is allowed to grow can improve the experience. It’s common for kids to worry about the future. They may think ”What if this?” or “What if that?” By talking about something ahead of time, parents are essentially prepping a child by giving him or her expectations and alternative plans to alleviate the “What if” concerns.

Parents should also accept the fact that they are not fortunetellers; and so, try as we might, we can’t predict everything that may go wrong either. So, it’s important to let kids know that even if something is different than expected, that’s okay. Let your child know that with the help of others such as family members, friends, or professionals you’ll figure out how to work with or around the unexpected.

Understanding the Difference between Trauma and Anxiety

Understanding how to tell the difference between trauma and anxiety is important. It is especially important when dealing with a foster or adopted child because you may not have a clear understanding of what has happened before the child came into your life. The Adoption.com article “How  Can I Help My Adopted Child Cope With Loss And Trauma” states, “Loss, grief, and trauma are unavoidable parts of adoption. It is unwise to believe that an adoptive family can escape any aspect of loss or never have to deal with some level of trauma.” It goes on to suggest prospective adoptive parents look into trust-based relational intervention as a “powerful and research-based approach to parenting kids from hard places.”

What are Triggers?

Children may be triggered into feeling anxious by many different factors such as things that have happened in the past that a current or upcoming situation reminds them of, places they have been that bring them back to an unpleasant time in their life, or an experience that they have difficulty talking about. In some cases, parents may be aware of certain triggers and they may be hesitant to even bring up the topic or subject. They may be afraid they will not relieve a child’s anxiety but add to it instead. So, they choose to avoid talking about it rather than preparing a child. Pam suggests it is never a good idea to keep something from a child out of fear that it may lead to an uncomfortable situation. It’s important to be honest with children. To learn more about how words, images, smells, and even sounds can transport a child back to a traumatic experience read “How To Cope With Triggers.”

Tips to Help Your Child Deal with Things that Make Him or Her Uncomfortable

Again, it’s so important for parents and caregivers to remain calm and have some well-practiced strategies and tools already in place to anticipate potential triggers. Parents can help children to calm down by using techniques such as deep breathing or forecasting (as mentioned above) to let the child know what to expect ahead of time. By acknowledging a child’s anxiety through talking to him or her about feelings, you can reassure him or her and let the child know you will be there no matter what.

Additionally, it’s never a good idea to hold back or mislead a child about what may be just around the bend. Pam uses the example of a parent not telling a child that he or she is going to the doctor’s office to receive a shot. Instead, the parent pretends the child is going for an ice cream cone. Think about how you would feel in this situation and the loss of trust that may result when the child realizes the truth. Instead, by using strategies such as talking a child through what to expect and, in some cases, reaching out for help to familiarize a child with a new situation. These strategies will be much healthier for the child and lead to better communication and trust with the child’s parents for future situations. In addition to being truthful, parents are empowering an otherwise anxious child by giving him or her a sense of control over the situation. Parents do this by telling the child what to expect and helping him or her feel more comfortable.

Pam suggests starting out small. She uses the example of a child who may express a fear of dogs. Rather than pushing him or her to pet a dog by taking the child to a pet shop on Day 1, instead, stop at the library and pick out a book about dogs. Watch a movie about dogs. Help the child learn about dogs and to know what to expect when around them. Rather than allowing him or her to worry and build the fear, help the child deal with the fear head-on without forcing him or her to deal with it in an overwhelming way like a room full of dogs. Recognize, validate, and be patient. Let your child know that it’s perfectly normal and okay to be afraid of dogs and that together you can work to overcome that fear in a healthy way at his or her own pace.

A good example that parents can relate to is that of the dreaded home study. Think about the anxiety that you may have felt leading up to the big day. Worrying about whether or not you would pass and wondering what the social worker would find wrong with you. There you sat waiting to hear how truly unprepared and ill-fitting you were to become a parent. And then, the day came and you realized the social worker wasn’t stopping by to reject you from being able to foster or adopt, but he or she was there to become a resource and an ally both in helping you to get to the next stage of the process and supporting you so that you would eventually feel confident and ready to support your child. The Adoption.com article, “Experiencing A Home Study: My-Story,” is a great look at one adoptive mom’s experience. Until we know what to expect, it is quite common to worry, right? By thinking back to our own worries (whether from childhood or from last week) we can be a great resource in providing a strong example for our children to follow.

What is monster spray?

Well-meaning parents wishing to help a child through anxiety or an uncomfortable experience should also acknowledge that they are adults with life experience and the wisdom that comes from that experience. Whereas, a child who has not had the same experiences is incapable of using present logic to rationalize away his or her fear of the unknown. Parents need to go to their child’s level. Work through the fear in an age-appropriate way that values the child’s perspective, not yours.

Pam talks about the scenario where a child is convinced that there is a monster under the bed. Rather than the parent simply dismissing the notion as impossible, she suggests allowing the child to talk through her fear and then presenting solutions such as monster spray to keep pesky monsters away.

Parents may need to get a little creative here depending on the child and the situation, but by acknowledging your child’s fear rather than dismissing it, you are again empowering him or her to be an active participant in overcoming a fear and putting him or her in control of the situation. She suggests that parents always listen to their child, recognize that their child doesn’t process like an adult, and meet the child where he or she is at.

Share How You Overcome Fears to an Extent with Your Child 

Children tend to pick up on what we as parents are feeling. It’s important to recognize our own anxiety and fears, and it’s also perfectly okay to make your child aware that you may feel a certain way about a situation that makes you uncomfortable. In fact, this can serve as a great opportunity to show your child how you deal with and handle your own stress by implementing strategies that work for you. In doing so, you are connecting with the child in a way that allows him or her to normalize personal emotions and insecurities. You are in fact modeling for him or her how to choose to manage anxiety. Just be sure that the situation is age-appropriate as you don’t want to add to or even create new fears in him or her. Pam reminds viewers that “You can’t expect kids to play an adult role.”

Next Steps

Parents want to make it right because that’s what they do, but parents need to sometimes take a step back and simply be there for a child. Know when the best time to address issues is for your child. Trying to rationalize with a child on any given topic is nearly impossible as discussed above. Children do not have the capability to rationalize things the way an experienced adult can. So, it’s important to remember to be age-appropriate in your discussions and strategy. It’s also important to wait until your child is calm to really dig into an issue and to work through it. Waiting until your child is in a more relaxed state will almost guarantee he or she will be more open to your input and more receptive to accepting your help and implementing your strategies.

Some helpful links and resources for parents and children as discussed in the video include:

Homemade Monster Spray Ideas

DFW Center for Play Therapy Training

PamDyson.com

CDC Milestone Checklist

My Many Colored Days, by Dr. Seuss

-Todd Parr’s books

The reFRAMED podcast is created to educate, encourage, and inspire parents and professionals that have a love for children and want to meet their needs.