Parenting a child with anxiety is hard. Not only do parents have to deal with the difficulty of seeing their child distressed, they also have to deal with ‘helpful’ suggestions and comments from others who just don’t get it. ‘Just tell them to deal with it’, ‘my child is scared of X, Y, and Z too and I just make them do it anyway’, or ‘why are they scared? There’s nothing to be scared of here.’ While well intentioned, comments like these reflect the lack of understanding that many people have about anxiety, and mental health in general. Mental health concerns are invisible; you can’t tell by looking at a child that they suffer from anxiety. This leads many people to assume that feeling nervous or scared in situations is the same as feeling anxious. Or they assume that children have more control over their mental health than they actually do.
While many children (and adults) get nervous in certain situations (before a big test or game, class presentations), and many children have specific fears (the dark, bugs), many of these are developmentally or situationally appropriate. What sets anxiety apart is the degree of the fear and the degree to which it interferes with a child’s life. While it may be developmentally appropriate for a child to have a fear of the dark, a child with anxiety may still have this fear at age 11, and may be unable to sleep on their own. While it is pretty typical for a child to get nervous before having to speak in front of the class, a child with anxiety may be physically unable to do it and may start anticipating and worrying about it weeks in advance.
The following are some facts that parents of children with anxiety really wish people knew, understood, and accepted.
1. Children with anxiety can’t just ‘get over it’
I have often heard from families coping with anxiety that the most unhelpful ‘helpful’ comment they get from family members or friends is ‘just tell the child to get over it’ or ‘tell them to suck it up’ or ‘just tell them to deal with it.’ Parents often feel judged and criticized when people don’t understand that it is not that easy. You cannot just make a child with anxiety do something that makes them anxious. It’s a process, sometimes very gradual, and there may be a point where the anxious child is just not capable of handling any more. While children who are nervous or scared about something may be able to be pushed to do it, the same may not be true of a child who is experiencing severe anxiety.
2. Children with anxiety aren’t trying to be difficult
Anxiety can make everyone’s life difficult. Families may be forced to skip events, children with anxiety may resist going places or doing things, they may insist that things are done a certain way, and it may seem like they are often getting special treatment. This is not their fault, nor is it under their control. They are the ones that have to deal and live with the anxiety day after day. No child would choose to be anxious and they often experience a lot of guilt around how difficult it can make everything for their loved ones.
3. Drawing attention to the anxiety makes it worse
People have this strange tendency to point out to an anxious child that they look anxious. Making comments about how shy they are, pointing out that they don’t talk very much, or asking them why they do or don’t do certain things only serves to make the anxiety worse. Children with anxiety generally don’t want to talk about the anxiety and parents don’t want to address it directly in front of their children. So saying to a parent of an anxious child ‘wow, Johnny is so shy and really doesn’t talk very much’ or asking a parent of an anxious child ‘why doesn’t Cindy have to present in front of the class’, is generally not the best approach.
4. Anxiety can look like oppositional or defiant behaviour
Picture a recent time when you’ve felt overwhelmed and incredibly stressed. Picture the tension in your body and the irritability that goes along with it. That’s how children with anxiety feel most of the time and especially when they encounter whatever it is that causes them anxiety. Given this, it is no wonder that anxiety sometimes manifests as oppositional behaviour. Meltdowns, anger, and defiance can all be by-products of anxiety. If a child has a plan in mind of how the day will go and something changes, there might be a huge meltdown. If they are in a situation that is uncomfortable for them, their behaviour may seem oppositional. They may be very insistent on things being done a certain way. Anxiety is not an excuse for bad behaviour, but the way a parents handles a tantrum due to anxiety may be different than how a parent handles a traditional tantrum.
5. Children with anxiety cope in many different ways
Children develop all sorts of coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety. Whether it is insisting that they only wear certain clothes or eat certain foods, or carrying a special object with them, these are ways the child has developed to keep the anxiety lower and to give them some control over their circumstances. While some of these behaviours may seem quirky or confusing to others, they help the anxious child function on a daily basis.
6. Children with anxiety are capable of amazing things
Anxiety gets in the way for children, but that does not mean that they can’t achieve great things. They may need to approach things in a different way and it may take longer for them to find their stride, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get there. Be patient, be supportive, be understanding.
Parents of children with anxiety have a difficult job. They need to be there to comfort and console, while still helping their child deal with and hopefully move past the anxiety. They understand everything that is wonderful and special about their child and they see first-hand how hard the anxiety makes things for them and how much it interferes and affects their child. Other people likely don’t see that as clearly, and they may have a hard time understanding the anxiety and what it does. The above can offer a different perspective for those who do not have as much experience with anxiety.
Dr. Spere is a psychologist in Kitchener who works with children, teens, and their families. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, comments, or ideas for future articles.