In a world where we are constantly bombarded by stimulation, news stories of violence, and social comparisons, it is no surprise that anxiety in kids and teens is on the rise. In addition to being the mom of three young boys, I am also a social worker specializing in childhood anxiety. At home, I strive to equip my boys with the necessary coping skills to manage their big feelings. Similarly, at work, I teach other kids and teens strategies to face their fears in order to reduce their anxiety. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that since both my husband and I are prone to anxiety, our boys are genetically wired to be anxious, as well. Between my home life and my work life, my world is riddled with anxiety. Even my dogs panic during thunder storms and make ridiculous waling noises when separated from us. Despite my training and background, I often find myself lost on a daily basis when it comes to managing my own children’s anxiety.
As mothers, we are hardwired to protect our kids from any harm.
When they cry, we want to jump in with hugs and comfort. When they struggle, we want to do everything within our power to relieve any bit of that pain, but what if this comfort is sometimes what is holding them back? Our children need to feel things in order to move through them. We will never be able to remove all of the painful, anxiety provoking conditions from their lives, no matter how hard we try.
When given the choice to hide them from these situations or guide them through, we must choose the latter.
Not all kids look forward to going to school or soccer practice. Believe me; I spent every single day this past school year trying to convince my 4-year-old to go to school, and that school was important, fun, and necessary. Much to my dismay, nothing I did seemed to ease his discomfort. Bargaining with fruit snacks, favorite activities afterwards, and new books proved fruitless. Teachers reported that he would start to open up around 10:30 a.m., two hours after he arrived. As the year went on, he eventually began to open up to his teachers, and sometimes even his peers, but even up until the very last day, his resistance was strong. His teacher-parent conferences left us frustrated, since despite his knowledge of the alphabet, we were told to practice letters at home, because he refused to speak in front his peers and teachers when called on.
So why even send him to preschool or swimming lessons or T-ball practice? After all, it may seem that there is nothing he is learning in these venues that we cannot teach at home.
Here is the thing.
ABCs and baseball logistics are not necessarily the goals of these activities. He is in fact learning a great deal about independence, confidence, teamwork, and social skills. These are experiences that only being with his peers and away from his parents can give him.
Pushing your kids out of their comfort zones allows them to grow, creating resiliency. Resiliency that they can take with them throughout their lives. As painful as it may be for you to watch the suffering from the sidelines, these opportunities, where they are forced to practice being courageous, are where our children learn and expand. One of the most important lessons parents can teach their children is the importance of leaning in and facing their fears.
So how do we do this?
We may not be able to remove all of the negativity from their lives, but we are able to give them tools to cope and a safe space to practice conquering these fears.
Set up opportunities to practice feared situations.
Garage sales are perfect opportunities to have your child interact with others by using their money and their manners. Although challenging, try not to speak for your child when they are asked questions. Allow them to checkout their dollar toys at target. These experiences add up and help to reduce the overall anxiety they may bring.
Be your child’s cheer leader!
Help them to think more confidently by providing praise for effort, as well as allowing them to tell you when they have done well.
Practice deep breathing and relaxation strategies.
Apps such as Headspace or Calm have great run throughs of progressive muscle relaxation exercises and body scans. Think of the ability to relax your body like a muscle you are exercising. The more you practice, the better you get.
Build off of your child’s imagination by telling various stories with your child as the main character, facing challenges with bravery and conquering feared situations.
Model the importance of trying new things, leaving your comfort zone, and using positive self soothing strategies to get you through whatever daily challenges come your way.
Boost your child’s confidence by teaching them to master a few skills on their own.
If the gym day care causes anxiety, get yourself to the gym mama! I know it feels counter intuitive, and I know the whining and crying is painfully exhaustive, but it is worth it! Not only will you get a work out and an hour alone, but your child will have learned that they are capable of doing something hard and unwanted. They will have learned that they can, in fact, survive those uncomfortable feelings that come with being away from you and in a different environment. And in turn, they will begin to build the necessary confidence it takes to navigate this world and all it’s scary obstacles.