Helping your child overcome anxiety
As a parent, how are you helping your child overcome anxiety without making them feel isolated or condemned? As someone who has battled extreme anxiety myself I’m able to speak from experience. I’ve also walked with many students over the years through their own battle with anxiety. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to share some strategies I’ve learned along the way. In this article I’ll unpack what I know about this topic and share with you 9 strategies I’ve honed along the way for helping your child overcome anxiety.
The crippling force we know as “anxiety”
Anxiety, it’s an unpleasant word and a crippling force that seems to be everywhere I look these days. Anxiety is not a new problem, but has become a more prevalent issue than ever before. I believe that the chaotic pace of the twenty-first century is the main culprit. The rising stress has peaked due to pressures of hectic schedules, education status, and unrealistic ideals on social media. The idea that we have to “Get it right” has escalated dramatically and led many to a breaking point.
Reality in numbers
I recently read a statistic that said 1 in 4 American teens currently suffer from an anxiety disorder. For teenage girls, the statistics are even worse with 1 in 3 teen girls dealing with anxiety. Most prevalent among teenagers, we know that adults and children battle it as well. The reality is that we will all experience anxiety in some form. We need to be equipped to deal with it in a healthy way.
1. Acknowledge that it’s a real issue
Has your child or someone in your life reached out to you and admitted that they’re struggling with anxiety? If so, it’s vital that you believe what they’re experiencing is real, even if you can’t see or understand it. If you discount their feelings as them being overly dramatic, then they likely won’t reach out to you again. Isolation breeds anxiety, whereas community provides a path to freedom. It’s ok to be honest and admit that you don’t fully understand what they’re feeling or going through. Just make sure they know that you’re taking their distress seriously and that you hate that they are hurting.
2. Remain calm and carry on
Someone that is battling anxiety feels like their life is spinning out of control. They often feel overwhelming fear about the power of anxiety itself and their inability to control it. So when they share their thoughts and fears with you, it’s crucial to remain calm. Try to normalize it as much as possible. Remind them that anxiety and fear are part of life in a stressful world. Offer them encouragement that they do not have to walk through it alone. The less their anxiety frightens you, the more likely they are to trust you to keep walking the road to healing with them.
3. Treat anxiety as a struggle to overcome, not as an identity
Many people who deal with anxiety allow it to define them. They see themselves as an anxious person, instead of a person who is battling with anxiety. Anxiety is nearly impossible to defeat if you accept it as part of your identity. This makes it crucial that we help our children, students, and friends see that it’s simply something they are walking through for a time.
4. Open up about your own struggles
It’s always difficult to be vulnerable. It’s nearly impossible to be honest about your struggles if you believe the person you’re talking to has never struggled before. Whether you’ve struggled with some type of anxiety in your past or not, sharing about a time when you faced something difficult and overcame it can help your child build trust in you and courage for facing their own battle.
5. Don’t allow anxiety to become an excuse
We know that no one becomes a marathon runner by sitting on the couch. They get off the couch and run as far as they can. By doing what is uncomfortable they gain strength to run further. Yet often, when it comes to anxiety, we believe that people should wait to feel less anxious before facing the things that scare them. The problem with this approach is that it only fuels fear and anxiety. Instead, we must repeatedly get up and exercise our muscles of courage even when the anxiety is overwhelming. This is how you grow stronger than your fear. As a parent, it’s vital to hold your children accountable to exercise courage in small things. Being patient with them in the process does not mean lowering appropriate standards or making excuses. Help them remember that there is no shame in feeling fear. Strength comes from continually choosing not to let fear make decisions for you.
6. Alleviate the pressure
This may seem like a direct contradiction to the last point, but these two strategies actually work hand in hand. Many teens today experience anxiety because they feel intense pressure to be perfect and keep up appearances. One of the best things you can do as a parent is help your child identify which challenges need to be faced and which things are causing unnecessary pressure. The things that are unnecessary should either be eliminated or put as a lower priority so that your child can focus on facing anxiety in areas that matter. It’s important that you are also examining the pressure you place on them. If you’re holding them accountable for diligent effort and good decisions that’s fantastic, but if you’re putting extensive pressure on them to perform in the top tier of their peers when it’s not necessary you may be part of the problem.
7. Help them break tasks down into manageable pieces
Anxiety is often the result of feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Someone experiencing extreme anxiety often gets overwhelmed by even simple tasks and struggles to see where to start. One of the most practical things you can do is to help them break down tasks into small manageable steps. Help them write out an action plan with a clear starting point for addressing tasks and issues they need to face. Be as specific as possible on when and how they will accomplish these steps. It’s important that this form of help and accountability is a process they are agreeing to and not something they feel forced into. It’s also so important that you celebrate the small victories with them! Every time they say no to fear and accomplish something, it’s a victory worth celebrating! Small victories build courage for bigger battles.
8. Patience is key!
People who battle anxiety are usually already very frustrated with themselves and their inability to “get it together” or “feel better,” so they usually expect others to be frustrated and impatient with them too. If you can show them with words and actions that you are there with them in the battle for as long as it takes this will make the world of difference for your relationship with them and your ability to help them through the anxiety. Anxiety is usually not a simple disease and takes lots of time and work to overcome. This means patience with the process is the only way to a real solution that addresses the issue and not just the symptoms.
9. Help them find others who can be supportive
Recognize that even though you love them, you yourself don’t have all of the answers. No one does! This means that one of the best things you can do as a parent is to put them into contact with other people who can be on their team in this fight! This may be a counselor, a mentor, or even peers. The more support they have, the stronger and better equipped they will be in helping your child overcome anxiety.
What the Bible says
In closing, I want to remind you that Romans 8 makes the outcome of the war on anxiety very clear “Nothing in life or death will separate us from the love of God.” This means that even the unseen monster of anxiety is not powerful enough to separate us from God’s love. We are never too broken for him! Ultimately, no matter how long the battle rages, we have victory as a promise if we choose to allow him to fight with us! So having done all to stand, stand!