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How to Help Your Anxious Child in an Increasingly Anxious World

As someone who's struggled with anxiety, I was terrified of passing it to my sons. That's why I discovered ways to promote their well-being.

While genetics plays a large part in which children suffer from anxiety and depression, other factors such as the home environment also play a major role.

While genetics plays a large part in which children suffer from anxiety and depression, other factors such as the home environment also play a major role.

Imagining the Perfect Child

When a couple is expecting a baby, they love to imagine their ideal child–the perfect blend of the two of them. This flawless youngster will, of course, inherit dad’s athleticism, sense of humor, and thick hair and mom’s mathematical prowess, oratory skills, and adorable dimples. Expectant parents never dare to consider that the child will undoubtedly receive some of their negative traits as well. It’s too upsetting to envision the hardships their youngster will experience with dad’s stocky build, social awkwardness, and crooked teeth and mom’s hyperactive nature, impulsiveness, and addictive personality.

Heading Off Anxiety and Depression

Moms and dads who’ve suffered from anxiety and depression themselves don’t want to picture their child struggling in the same ways they did. Fortunately, we now know they don't need to just sit on the sidelines with their fingers crossed, hoping for the best. Instead, they can take proactive steps to promote their child’s emotional well-being starting at birth. Rather than waiting for a problem to develop, parents can be proactive in preventing their youngster from developing depression and anxiety in the first place. Taking preventive measures in the early years is highly preferable to waiting until a youngster needs antidepressants, a therapist, or inpatient care at a mental health facility.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the brain function that underlies anxiety and depression is inherited and the average age of onset for anxiety disorders is 11. The good news for concerned parents, though, is genetics alone don't determine whether a youngster will suffer from these conditions. The three E's—environment, experiences, and engagement—also play a huge determining role. So, with that in mind, here are 30 crucial tips for rearing a child who’s not overcome by anxiety and depression.

How to Help an Anxious Child

  1. Create an emotionally literate home
  2. Make your home a sanctuary
  3. Limit social media
  4. Go outside and exercise regularly
  5. Prepare them for adulthood
  6. Deal with your own anxiety so you don't share it with your kids

See suggestions for how to do each of these things below.

The First E: Environment

Long before having a child, parents-to-be should build a proper nest. A youngster needs a loving, peaceful environment where they feel safe, protected, and accepted. The worst possible living situation is one that’s full of anger, hostility, and unpredictability. While some adults choose to lead a drama-filled life, they have no right to subject a child to it.

Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and parenting expert, says repeated outbursts of anger from a mom or dad can lead to long term emotional problems for their child. When a youngster sees a parent raging out of control, they become frightened and come to view their world as unstable and perilous. The one place where they should feel safe—their home—becomes a source of discomfort. While parents can’t control the outside world and its impact on their child, they have 100 percent control over the environment they create in their homes and, therefore, should take full advantage of it.

Create an Emotionally Literate Home

  1. Make your home emotionally literate. Starting when they’re young, give your children the vocabulary to describe what they’re feeling. Dr. Brene Brown says most of us only know three emotions: happy, sad, and pissed off. In Atlas of the Heart, she details dozens more we should all know such as wonder, anguish, envy, shame, guilt, and optimism.
  2. Make your home a safe space to speak about emotions. All of us, adults and kids alike, “armour up” before stepping out into the real world with all its challenges and indignities. Therefore, it’s essential that youngsters can be vulnerable at home and express their feelings without being judged for them.
  3. Eat dinner together as a family. Studies show children and teens who regularly have meals with their parents are more likely to get better grades, maintain a proper weight, and deal effectively with stress. They're also less likely to use cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana.
  4. Make the dinner table a “no phone zone.” Keep a basket on the table and have everyone place their cell phones, tablets, and other devices in it before sitting down to eat.
  5. Do “the pit and the peak” at dinner. Go around the dinner table with each family member taking a turn. Tell the pit of your day–what went wrong, what was difficult–and the peak–what was successful, what made you happy. This is a terrific way for kids to know we all have ups and downs, challenges, struggles, and frustrations and nobody is living a perfect Instagram life.

Make Your Home a Sanctuary

6. Make your home a sanctuary. If you’ve had a rough day at work, don’t take it out on your spouse and kids. Be a good role model by communicating your feelings and dealing with them in a constructive way whether it's running on the treadmill, gardening in the backyard, taking the dog for a walk, or relaxing in the tub.

7. Create a central location in your home for technology use. Choose one room of your house—the kitchen, den, or family room—where family members gather to use their devices. Monitor the sites the kids use and limit their time on them. Don’t allow them to have computers or tv’s in their bedrooms.

8. Fill your home with upbeat music. Turn on some lively music such as Motown and dance around the house, be carefree, and act silly. Let your kids know that music can lift our spirits.

9. Establish a weekly movie night. Get in your pajamas, make some popcorn, cuddle on the sofa, and watch a movie. Downtime is so precious and important for kids because so many of them are over-programmed with extracurricular activities.

10. Fill your home with books. Keep reading to your children even when they can read themselves. Books are invaluable tools for initiating important conversations. Kids often open up about their own struggles when characters in books are experiencing similar challenges.

The Second E: Experiences

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the suicide rate for teen girls 15-19 has doubled between 2007 and 2015. Anxiety and depression have been on the increase for all children since the 1950s with some dubbing our new millennium “The Age of Anxiety.” While society has changed in many profound ways (more divorces and single-parent homes, less job stability, and family cohesion), social media seems to be a major culprit with kids today feeling uneasy, lonely, and afraid.

Obsessed with staying connected to technology, kids see a steady stream of unrealistic images: picture-perfect photo-shopped celebrities, posts about exotic vacations, romantic dates, and fancy restaurants, and videos of people performing extraordinary feats and gaining instant fame. Nobody on social media is ever scrubbing a toilet, studying for an exam, or reheating leftovers. No wonder kids get anxious and depressed when constantly watching a distorted image of the world!

Unfortunately, some parents aim to keep their kids off technology by overprogramming them with extracurricular activities: sports teams, music lessons, dance classes, scout troops, and after-school tutoring. Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology, is the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life. He argues signing up kids for too many adult-led pursuits is another perilous trap and can cause anxiety and depression in children as well. He advocates for youngsters to have more experiences where they’re allowed to play together without grownup intervention.

Use the Outdoors as a Place of Well-Being

11. Get your child outdoors. Studies show that being outside in nature improves their psychological outlook and makes them more optimistic. Youngsters should be outdoors for a minimum of two hours each day.

12. Be a play-date parent. Invite your child’s friends over to your house and let them play together: building with blocks, making forts with blankets and chairs, looking for worms in the mud, or whatever they desire.

13. Organize outdoor play in your neighborhood. Establish a time when kids can get together and play outside on your street or in a nearby park. If their safety is a concern, have parents take turns supervising the group.

14. Let your youngster get bored. Children don’t need to be doing, doing, doing. Having downtime and getting bored is valuable for kids. It can spark their imaginations, heighten their curiosities, and motivate them to learn and explore on their own.

15. Give your child chores. Helping around the house makes kids feel like valuable members of the family. It builds their self-confidence and teaches them the importance of everyone pitching in to help the household run smoothly.

Use Aerobic Exercise for the Body and Mind

16. Encourage exercise. Not all kids enjoy team sports (especially introverts), but all kids benefit from getting regular aerobic exercise. Some thrive in solo endeavors such as running, hiking, biking, and swimming.

17. Promote artistic pursuits. Being creative is a powerful way for kids to soothe themselves. The finished product is not nearly as important as the relaxing process of making art. Drawing, coloring, molding with clay, and creating collages are activities that should be encouraged.

18. Get out in nature. On the weekends and during school breaks, make it a priority to expose your child to nature. Visit local hiking trails, travel to state and national parks, and get away from crowds and technology.

19. Practice a lifestyle of gratitude. Before going to bed, have your child tell you three things for which they’re thankful. Write them down in a gratitude journal. Studies show practicing gratitude makes us happier.

20. Consider getting a pet. Studies show humans benefit tremendously from this. Pets provide companionship, help us live in the moment, and make us less egocentric. Kids learn responsibility by taking care of an animal, whether it’s a goldfish, a hamster, a cat, or a dog.

When parents bubble wrap their kids, protecting them for the real world, they make them fearful of life.

When parents bubble wrap their kids, protecting them for the real world, they make them fearful of life.

Avoid the Superficiality of Social Media

One of the biggest challenges parents face today is helping their kids stay engaged with the real world and not the virtual one on social media. Instagram, a photo-sharing app that’s owned by Facebook, is hugely popular among teens, but some moms and dads didn’t know about it until recently when it made headlines. Facebook’s internal report about Instagram’s effects on teenagers got leaked to the public, showing it creates significant mental health issues for large numbers of teen girls.

Instagram creates an alternate universe with photos (many of them filtered) where everyone is gorgeous, thin, rich and pictured in one exotic locale after another partying and having fun. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Facebook’s research showed Instagram increases anxieties among teen girls, making them worry excessively about their physical attractiveness, their popularity, and their family’s income. While it may prove an impossible task to keep a teen off social media altogether, there are many things parents can do to curb its impact.

Preparation for Adulthood

21. Keep in mind you’re not rearing a child; you’re rearing an adult. Your job is to prepare your youngster to be a self-sufficient, contributing member of society.

22. Let your child make mistakes and allow them to fail. Julie Lythcott-Haims is a former dean at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult. She says too many students arrive on campus prepared academically for college but ill-prepared for handling day-to-day life without their parents’ help. She advises moms and dads to stop sheltering their kids from the real world and let them engage in it.

23. Have your family volunteer at a food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter. Kids need to be exposed to real people in the real world, not just doctored photos on a computer screen. Helping others is a powerful way to develop gratitude.

24. Listen to your children but don’t try to solve their problems. Kids need to figure out things on their own so don’t step in to give advice or interfere even if you think they’re making a misstep.

25. Don’t be your child’s friend; be their parent. Your youngster will have many pals over the years but only one mom and dad. They get a sense of security from having an authority figure in their lives and someone who loves them unconditionally.

Engagement With the Real World

26. Starting when they’re young, point out the unrealistic images to your children in magazines, TV shows, and social media. Talk about lighting, filters, and airbrushing.

27. Model good behavior by limiting your use of social media. Your example is far more potent than words.

28. Point out the superficiality of social media. Remind your child it’s more valuable to have three real friends than 3,000 so-called Facebook friends.

29. Accept your child for who they are, not who you want them to be. Your youngster is not here on earth to fulfill your unfulfilled dreams from childhood. Let them blaze their own unique path.

30. Talk about current events. The days of sheltering children and teens from the horrible things happening in the world are long over. Kids hear about them on social media, whether it’s a school shooting, catastrophes brought on by climate change, or violence in their communities. They need parents who listen to their concerns, put them in perspective, and offer comfort.

In the video below, a psychologist explains how children develop important coping skills when parents step back, allow them to make mistakes, and learn from their failures.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers

Comments

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 06, 2017:

I was lucky to learn from my sister's mistakes. 2 of her 3 kids are highly anxious. You and I and our fellow Hubbers are lucky to have writing as an outlet. It helps with my anxiety. I also do lots of exercise and spend time outdoors. I stay away from social networks and focus on real relationships. Young people today have it rough, and anxiety is a symptom of that. When I read about the people who were sexually harassed in Hollywood, I feel so bad for them. How could that not result in tremendous fear when you feel you have little or no control over your career? I was bullied at work for a 6-month period before I quit. It happened 4 years ago, and it still troubles me greatly because there was little I could do. Powerlessness causes great anxiety.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 06, 2017:

Oddly, Bev and I, as single parents, did a rotten job at this. I don't like writing that but it appears to be true. Three of her four kids are highly-anxious, as is my son. Sigh! I'm afraid this article came too late for us.

McKenna Meyers (author) on October 02, 2017:

So true. I'm always fixing myself and going in for tune-ups!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 02, 2017:

Great points! Fixing ourselves first enable us to deal with the children them effectively.