How to Be a Good Parent to an Anxious Child

Updated on February 9, 2019
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A mother and a dedicated nurse who values children and family. A passionate writer aiming to help others by sharing my own experiences.

What Is An Anxious Child

Parents are often told that their toddler is just going through a terrible age or that it is just a phase but parents who live with an anxious toddler know that it is more than that. Some behaviors may be confusing or misunderstood because many typical parenting approaches do not work or worse make the problem bigger. Parents often feel as if they have tried everything and nothing works. During this stage of development, there is ongoing growth in your child’s emotional and intellectual understanding. A toddler’s language and cognitive abilities are vastly different at age one than at age three. Some children develop faster than others and may be quicker to acquire and understand language. With such an array of differences across developmental milestones between the ages of one and three not every approach will be developmentally appropriate for your toddler. If you come across an approach that requires a higher acquisition of language or emotional maturity make a note of the approach in case you are still dealing with that issue when your toddler is a little bit older. It is amazing how quickly toddlers change from month to month.

Slowly expose kids to challenging situations where they are rewarded for their progress.
Slowly expose kids to challenging situations where they are rewarded for their progress. | Source

Is There A Perfect Approach To Parenting An Anxious Child

What may seem too difficult one month may be a perfect approach a few months later. Parents get conflicting guidance from friends and how to parenting books. Different names for different parenting styles have popped up and there is an air of condemnation for those that do not do it. This can make parents feel like a failure when that approach just does not work for their child. Every child is different and a parenting approach might work for one child but not another. This is definitely the case for anxious or restless toddlers. At times typical parenting approach just does not work. Sometimes the parenting approach you have used successfully for your other children just is not working with your anxious toddler. You have to find an approach that works best for your family. This may conflict with what other people might think to be the right approach. As a parent you have to trust that judgement for yourself and find an approach that works for your child.

Effective Ways To Deal with An Anxious Toddler

One of the most effective ways to eliminate your child’s anxiety is teaching them coping mechanisms and then slowly exposing them to challenging situations where they are rewarded for their progress. Children are more motivated to face their anxiety and use their coping mechanisms when there is positive reinforcement in place. What some parents do not understand is that it is not about getting more love but rather an anxious compulsion that cannot get satiated. The child is looking for reassurance through your words and physical contact but this will never be enough when you give in to the demand for more and more hugs. The child’s compulsion is for more and more hugs. When you draw clear boundaries you teach your child to feel secure with limits and you break their compulsive behavior.

  • Children’s rigid behavior around their routine and their environment can be exhausting and time consuming. It is a hard balancing act but it is important for parents to gently push their child to the outer limits of their comfort zone.
  • Changing the routine purposely and break ritualistic behavior by not letting your child control your behavior will all help them develop long term coping mechanisms and adaptation skills. It is important to remember though that these things will take time patience and consistency.

Most toddlers have meltdowns when they do not get their way. In fact you can say that this is probably the root of most toddler tantrum. Toddlers are just finding their independence and are ready to take charge if only you were not standing in their way. Like all toddlers restless toddlers have meltdowns and the only difference is that anxious toddlers have a hard time regulating most things including their emotions. So when an anxious toddler starts to derail because they cannot get their way their tantrums are going to be longer and more intense than those of the average toddler.

Children with panic attacks would benefit from ongoing therapy to learn coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques and should be assessed by a mental health practitioner.

If your child is exhibiting extreme behaviors this may be an indication that they could benefit from early intervention.
If your child is exhibiting extreme behaviors this may be an indication that they could benefit from early intervention. | Source

Extreme Behaviors Of Children

Most of what you teach your child is foundational and slow building. It will often feel as if your efforts are not effective but in fact you are laying out the groundwork on which everything else will be built. Seeking out professional support is a personal decision. There are many parents who have the ability to utilize resources and educate themselves enough to work with their anxious child without additional support while others might find it beneficial to have a child therapist for extra support and guidance. There is no right or wrong decision. However if your child is exhibiting more extreme behaviors this may be an indication that they could benefit from early intervention. The more proactive parents are in getting their children help the more promising the prognosis will be in the long term. It is best to not have a wait and see attitude when it comes to mental health. The earlier a child gets help the better the outcome will be. You may not know what would constitute extreme behavior and that might leave you feeling unsettled. Below are some behaviors that should be further assessed by a mental health professional.

  • Your toddler bites themselves and leaves marks. They scratch themselves and leaves marks. They bite nails until they bleed.
  • Your child refuses to talk to anyone except immediate family by completely going mute. Some children gets so nervous they break out in hives or throw up. If you have any concerns it would be beneficial to talk to your pediatrician or a mental health provider for further guidance.
  • As children get older their worries and anxieties shift and change. It is helpful to arm with the knowledge of what anxiety looks like as your child moves through different developmental stages of course. Not every anxious toddler will continue to have anxiety but knowing what to look for will help to ensure that early signs are not missed.
  • Anxiety Disorder tend to get anxious perseverance on different themes to those that preoccupied them as toddlers. When a child continually worries and becomes irritable and distracted based on these worries they may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder . Some common anxieties might center on a fear of fire starting in the home people or breaking into their home getting kidnapped. When your child’s fears or phobias affect their social educational or emotional well being it is time to get some professional help. When in doubt have your child assessed by a pediatrician or mental health provider. Talk to your child's teachers to get additional information on how they are acting in various environments. Sometimes anxiety symptoms are only shown at home or at school.
  • Hair pulling and picking disorder is not uncommon behavior to be understood by parents. Some parents do not realize that pulling out one's hair is a mental health issue. Hair pulling occurs when a child has the urge to pull out hair. Children will most often pull hair from their scalp eyebrows and eyelashes. This behavior can go unnoticed until bald patches appear or eyebrows are almost completely gone. Children with anxiety are at a higher risk of these types of behaviors.
  • Picking at scabs repeatedly is not only a medical concern but can be a mental health issue as well. The urge to continually pick your skin can be very strong and children can have a difficult time fighting it. This can become more of a concern when the scabs get infected or start to leave scarring on body.

An anxious child needs your support and love.
An anxious child needs your support and love. | Source

The First Sign Of Clinical Separation Anxiety Is A Child Feeling Sick

Children will complain frequently of headaches and stomach aches on school days and Sunday nights. Often these children are taken to pediatricians and gastrointestinal specialists where no medical origin is discovered. Most children will deny having any stress related to school.

  • Children may tell their parents they want to stay at home or they feel more comfortable at home. Parents will sometimes think their child is being bullied or that there is some stress or something happened at school.
  • Children with clinical separation anxiety will often aggressively refuse to go to school and will become uncharacteristically obstinate and oppositional. Most children are typically fearful that something bad will happen to them or to their parent if they are not together developing an irrational belief that they are only safe if they are together. These children will sometimes worry that they will get sick and throw up if they are not with their parent.
  • They will often make repeated trips to the school nurse or sent home on a regular basis due stomach a headache.

Developing a plan with the school on how to approach your child’s separation anxiety will be the key to long-term success. As with any of these disorders, it is helpful to get the support of a mental health professional.

  • Children who have panic attacks experience a number of physical symptoms. They may feel as if their heart is racing or that it is pounding in their chest. They may become sweaty and out of breath some children get dizzy and nauseous and are fearful they are dying.
  • Children who have panic attacks become anxious about when and where they will have their next attack.
  • They may refuse to go to school or in acute situations refuse to leave the house due to their fear of another attack.
  • Some children feel safest when they are close to their mom and come to the irrational conclusion that if they are with their parent they will not have panic attacks.

Children with panic attacks would benefit from ongoing therapy to learn coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques and should be assessed by a mental health practitioner.

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Children's Anxiety

It is important to remember that children are resilient and adaptable. Even though your child may have anxiety you can teach them the skills and coping mechanisms to have a happy healthy productive life. When your child is exhibiting some disturbing or confusing behavior it can be overwhelming. The important thing to remember is that children can be taught how to fight their fears and overcome much of their anxiety. Parents who react calmly and do not add their own ingredient of anxiety to the mix help by being their child’s anchor. When your child is feeling panicked and nervous do not bring your own nervous energy to the situation. Tether your child’s feelings of instability by being their rock. There are things you can control and there are things you cannot control. Once you realize that you can pour your attention into the areas where you can make the most difference. You cannot own your child’s anxiety or you will both drown. You cannot take your child’s fears away but you can empower your child from worrying and you can teach them alternative ways of thinking.

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.


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