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Parenting children

4 Ways to Help Your Anxious Child

Scared Max

It's not easy dealing with an anxious child. The whining, the tendency to overgeneralize and aggrandize every little incident, can push many parents to the edge. You may feel irritated and frustrated when despite all of your efforts at explanation, your child continues to be fearful.

However with help and these 5 suggestions, you can help your child overcome her anxiety.

1. Acknowledge her fears as real. When faced with a fearful child, it is tempting to try and soothe her by explaining away her fears. A 4 year old who is afraid of dogs might be given all sorts of explanations why the neighbor's dog won't hurt her. A 6 year old who is afraid of burglars might be given all sorts of logical demonstrations as to why his home is safe from burglars.

A better way of handling the situation is to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts behind the fear. For example, you might try putting an arm around the 4 year old, and say, "I see you're really scared by that dog? Are you worried he's going to hurt you?"

Most parents avoid this method, because they've seen their child become even more upset. It is true that when responded to like this, a child will become temporarily more hysterical. However this is only a temporary reaction.

This hysteria is part fear, but also part relief that you really do understand how they feel. If you stick with it, reassuring them that you understand these are scary feelings to have, and offering physical comfort, they will calm down fairly quickly after that initial hysteria.

2. Teach your child how to recognize and express his feelings of anxiety and fear. Children often don't know how to handle the strong feelings they experience. They may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their feelings, and so they may rely on you, the parent, to help them.

When you see your child entering the "danger zone" of fear, you can help him be more aware of his body language, tying it in later to a particular feeling. For example, if you see your 5 year old starts clinging to you, you can stop, bend down next to him, and say, "I'm looking at you now, and I see a boy whose muscles are really tight! (Squeeze his arm muscles to show him what you mean).

I also see how your eyes are wide, and you're breathing faster than you usually do. All of these things tell me you are feeling scared about something."

3. Teach her ways to cope with her anxiety. The real problem with your fearful child is not that he is fearful; but how he handles his fears. Everyone has fears at one time or another, whether we talk about or not. However, as adults, we have acquired various ways of coping with our fear.

Some people may go for a walk, others start housecleaning, while others head to the fridge. Your child also has a coping mechanism, albeit an ineffective one. You need to replace your child's ineffective coping mechanism by teaching her what to do when she feels anxious.

Sit down with your child, and explain that sometimes people feel scared or worried about things. Give an example of a recent worry that you or someone else the child knows had. Then explain that we don't have to be stuck with our fear; we can do something to help us feel better. Then brainstorm together with them,  and write up all the suggestions.

If your child is under 9, you could even take a picture of her carrying out each of the suggestions; in the midst of an anxiety attack a picture will get through to her panicked mind more easily. When your child starts becoming fearful, carry out the previous steps, and then bring your child to the chart you have made together.

You may have to gently prod her to engage in one of the activities, and it is okay to say to her that if she does X, then you will read a special story together before bedtime, for example.

4.  Put limits on his behavior. You and your child may find it easier to let old habits lie; after all, changing your child's ineffective ways of handling his fears takes time, effort, and energy. However, in order to help your child, you will need to be consistent about what you require of him.

If you only occasionally help your child learn to recognize his body language, or every so often casually remind him about his list of coping mechanisms, you will make very little progress. Initially it will require a commitment on your part to invest the time and energy you will need to get the job done. No, your child will not always respond well to your understanding reassurances. She may resist listening to her MP4, as you discussed.

But if you keep at it, little by little your child will replace those ineffective behaviors with new, effective ones - and you will find yourself one day with a child who handles her fears with aplomb.

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