Here is how to help:
Don’t worry FOR them: Because your child’s anxiety didn’t just sprout up out of the blue, you likely anticipate their anxiety triggers, worry for them, and offer solutions before they have even identified a problem. You do this to be helpful - to avoid potential problems and reduce associated meltdowns - but they likely resent this help and it only appears to increase their distress? True story? Allow your child to come to you for help. Offer your time for them to address their problem with you while resisting the urge to solve their problems. Your job here is to listen and validate their concerns. If you’d like to provide some suggestions, request to do so ( e.g., “I have some opinions of what might be helpful, would you like to hear them?”). They will most likely say ‘’yes” and you’ll avoid the eye-roll at your previously well intentioned help.
Manage your own reactions to anxiety: Your child’s anxiety is predictable. There is a pattern and it’s likely triggered by similar antecedents each time. It’s also not dangerous (if it is it wouldn't be considered anxiety but actual threat), and therefore, there is always more time. In fact, most anxiety responses remit with time. it’s physiologically impossible to remain in a heightened anxious state, despite it feeling like it will never end. If you react as though it’s an emergency it will feel like one to your child. Remaining calm, sensible, and objective allows your child an opportunity to mirror your response. If you feel helpless, unsure, and scared and therefore react as such (e.g., making schedule changes, calling mental health providers, making medication changes, creating accommodations, dropping expectations), it will most certainly feel dangerous and like an emergency.
Provide support, don’t take over: It can be helpful for your child to discuss their anxiety with their teachers, school counselor, and administration. At times, it simply provides some relief knowing that others know, but its balance between supporting your child in this process and simply doing it for them. Anxiety can rob your child of their confidence. Therefore, continuing to allow your child to advocate for themselves, assert their needs, and articulate their concerns maintains their pride, boosts confidence, and provides good practice in communication. Doing this for them does none of the above. If they request help from you recognize their courage to ask for it, let them know you support them and help them identify whom to talk to, what to say (even if you have to role-play), and provide moral support, just don’t take over.
Schedule a time to problem solve: Planning ahead to address your child’s concern is important. Let them know that discussions regarding their anxiety and school will happen at a certain time (e.g., after dinner) but will not occur during others times (e.g., bedtime, before school in the morning). It’s not that this expectation will prevent them from being overwhelmed at inconvenient times, but establishes a pattern of being proactive and planful. It also avoids trying to problem solve when your child is hungry, tired, and overly emotional. Remember, it’s predictable. If your child has problems with homework they likely do every night-get away from the pattern of addressing it when it’s not complete 5-minutes before bed.
Use reassurance parsimoniously: Less is more. Anxiety is fueled by reassurance. Comments such as “everything will be ok” or “you’ll be fine” don’t help in the long run. Access to phone reassurance and text reassurance is equally as ineffective at managing your child’s anxiety long term. It sometimes helps in the moment but typically just helps the reassurer (parent) feel as though they are helping. If your child relies on regular check-ins during the day, or text messages, discuss reducing these. Your child cannot have confidence in their success if they believe it was, in part, due to having you as their lifeline.
Recognize your explicit and implicit expectations: Many parents report, “I don’t expect them to be perfect” when it comes to academic performance/grades. Yet, parent behavior can be somewhat contradictory. If you don’t expect perfectionism then reward “failure.” This can be achieve by focusing on effort, not grades. Try not to compare siblings and try to talk about your own professional failures and/or difficulties you had in school. It’s difficult to focus on improving one’s relationship with anxiety and improving one’s grades at the same time. Prioritize your expectations and be realistic.
If your child's anxiety is preventing them from attending school we have resources that may be helpful. View our Parenting Kids with Anxiety page here.