Our children steadily are becoming more anxious and depressed. Even before the pandemic, anxiety disorders and depression increased by 27% and 24% respectively among children. By 2020, 9.2% of kids studied had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 4% had been diagnosed with depression. During the pandemic, according to one literature review, those rates doubled. The CDC found that 37% of high school students reported poor mental during the pandemic. There is no doubt that children suffering from trauma rank high in those statistics. So if you are parenting a child with past trauma, there is a good chance that you are dealing with anxiety issues. How do we parent anxious kids?
Know What Anxiety Disorder Is and Is Not
The first step is to know what an anxiety disorder is. Anxiety in itself is not problematic. Like many unpleasant emotions, a child's anxiety can have important benefits, such as warning of danger. It’s also an unavoidable part of life. Everyone suffers from anxiety at times, and brief episodes can help us develop important emotional coping skills.
It's also common for children to be afraid of things in early childhood. The vast majority of young children eventually outgrow or learn how to deal with their fear of monsters under their beds. Developmentally normal fears shouldn’t cause us undue concern. Nor should temporary anxiety. Anxious feelings or excessive worry that last only a few weeks don't warrant much more than calm discussion and emotional support.
The problem comes when children don’t outgrow those fears or when a child's anxiety interferes with his or her normal life. Normal worry, such as the first day of a new school, can turn into intense fear of school, social situations, or new experiences. Phobias, including social phobia, are a type of anxiety disorder. Panic disorder is another.
Our kids may have specific fears, such as social anxiety disorder or separation anxiety disorder. Many of our kids, however, have generalized anxiety, with anxious thoughts about the future and worry that bad things are going to happen. Children with trauma in particular can be locked in a state of high vigilance, always on the lookout for some future threat. They learned to survive the unpredictability of their lives by being hyper-vigilant, and they won’t drop that coping skill just because you tell them that they are in a safe place. It will take a long time in a stable placement for them to feel safe.
We also have to be aware of the common symptoms of anxiety, as our children won’t always tell us that they are worried about anything. Sometimes they don’t have the experience or vocabulary to tell us what’s wrong. It’s easy to miss symptoms that look like something else, such as fatigue, anger, trouble sleeping, or general irritability. You may see physical symptoms such as feeling dizzy or having trouble breathing. Unexplained headaches and stomachaches are a very common symptom of anxiety in children. If your medical doctor can’t find an explanation for your child’s physical symptoms, start investigating the possibility that your child is suffering from anxiety.
Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers
If you see chronic emotional or physical symptoms, don’t just assume that your child has a bad attitude. It may be a bad attitude or it may be anxiety. If the problem is anxiety, then lecturing them about their attitude will simply make things worse. The only way you can find out the problem is to ask.
Once you have asked, then actively listen to the answers. I have a bad habit of listening for a while, and then starting to formulate a plan. Instead of listening, I’m busy “fixing” the problem inside my head. I know that’s the wrong thing to do, but I still find myself distracted with finding solutions. I have to proactively make myself stop and go back to listening to the child. Kids, especially older children and teens, don’t confide in adults until they are sure that we are really listening to them.
Don’t Downplay Their Emotions
Once you start hearing things that sound like anxiety, don’t downplay a child's fear about things that make no sense to you. It’s very easy for us to forget how overwhelming childhood or teen fears can be. Even if what they are afraid of doesn’t sound big to us, we can’t impose our viewpoint. We have to deal with their reality. They can’t “just snap out of it” or “get over it,” and the more we give those sort of suggestions, the worse we will make the problem. If ever a situation called for supportive parenting, child anxiety is that situation.
We also have to help them get past their physical symptoms before they can hear anything that we have to say. If their body is sending signals that they are in the middle of an emergency, then nothing we can say, good or bad, will get through. Help them learn coping skills, such as deep breathing (the “Swiss Army knife in the mental health toolkit”) to get the physical symptoms under control. Then accept their descriptions and let them know that they aren’t going through this alone.
Encourage Them to Face Their Anxiety
While we don’t want to downplay what our children are experiencing, at the same time we don’t want to agree that they can’t learn to handle their anxious feelings. I’ve written before about the SPACE program at Yale. The children are the patients, but they rarely attend therapy sessions. Rather, the sessions are with parents and adult family members, with the philosophy that parents can change their own behavior; “they do not need to make their child change.” The two prongs of the therapy teach parents how to be more supportive of their children and at the same, “reduce the accommodations they have been making to the child symptoms.” In short, parents learn how to supportively say to their kids, “I believe in your ability to cope with this anxiety.”
I have not been trained in the SPACE protocol, and I certainly am not a therapist. But its principles fit with what I’ve seen with traumatized kids. Supporting them does not mean leaving them mired in their anxiety. We need to encourage them to believe that, while the world sometimes can be an unpredictable and scary place, they can develop the skills to cope with it. We need to treat these copings skills the same as we would our kids’ learning music or sports or any other skill. We accept and love them where they are, encourage them to practice to hone their skills, recognize and applaud their progress (no matter how small or temporary), and let them know that we believe that they can do great things.
Find Small Victories
While we want to encourage our kids, we don’t want to overwhelm them. Learning skills of any kind takes time and practice. When a child can’t swim, we know that it’s a very bad idea to say “You can do this,” and throw them into the deep end of the pool. No, we start at the shallow end, teach them basic skills, and gradually add more complex skills. We need to follow the same model to help our kids learn the skills they need to deal with anxiety. Start with simple scenarios and concrete rewards (such as extra time to stay up), and then work your way up from the smaller steps to more complex situations.
Consider whether you can help your children think through or even practice situations that they find stressful. For people who have specific phobias related to flying, for example, therapists often recommend starting with a visit to an airport or a virtual simulation. Think through whether you can do the same sort of thing with your children. If they are worried about going to birthday parties, for example, have them practice shaking hands with the adults and introducing themselves. Role play some possible situations they may encounter with the other kids. Learning etiquette can be a powerful boost to a child’s confidence. There’s a reason that cotillion classes have been a staple of Southern life for decades. Helping children think through potential pitfalls and practice coping skills can help them learn to manage their anxiety.
Encourage your kids to find their own positive solutions. For example, limiting social media is always a good idea. There's no doubt that social media is related to many mental health problems, and young people who spend less time on social media are less subject to severe anxiety. However, like any other behavior, a house rule is always more effective if your child recognizes its importance and makes it his or her own rule. Your children will not only be more accepting of the social media restrictions, but they will be able to have control of an important aspect of their lives. In other contexts, you could discuss with them what small steps would help them feel more confident in social interactions or whether they can find a physical activity that they enjoy. The more you can help them take ownership of a solution, the more likely they are to use it to succeed.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see all the progress you want, or even if you see your child regress. For most of us, changing the way we think about things usually involves two steps forward and one step back. The important thing is for our children to keep moving forward, no matter how small the steps, and measure their progress over the long run.
Model Coping Skills
One of the most important things we can do is model coping skills for our children. We especially need to manage our own anxiety about our children. Of course, we all can face risk to ourselves much more calmly than risk to our children. Our strong instincts are to protect our kids, and we often think we can do so by lowering the risks that they face. One common way we try to do that is helping them avoid anxiety triggers. Certainly we want to keep them from being overwhelmed (think deep end of the pool), but research shows that if we allow our kids an escape route from difficult situations, we are actually reinforcing the idea that they can’t cope with the world. Anxious parents can inadvertently just make our child's anxiety worse. If we really want to help our kids grow from anxious to resilient, we need to learn how to get out of their way.
Find a Good Therapist
While you are working on all of these tips, don’t forget to get whatever professional help you need. A good therapist can be an immense support, offering evidence-based protocols and techniques tailored to your family. The most common and well-researched treatment programs are Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Dialectical Therapy (DBT), and the SPACE treatment protocol. Any of these can be an important tool to help your kids.
In modern society, childhood anxiety is an increasing problem, and many of us will have to help our kids deal with it. If we are parenting children who have suffered trauma, we can almost count on having to help them find coping skills for anxiety. With the seven principles above, we can better help our kids understand that while the world is uncertain, they can learn the skills to handle whatever comes their way. We can help them believe that, as one of my good friends, Amber Jewell, says, “Life is tough, but so are you.”