Recognizing the signs and learning to cope
I come from a very anxious family. My son seems to have inherited his
share of anxiety issues from me, and his symptoms became much more
pronounced after my husband and I split up. It probably shouldn’t have
come as a surprise; after all, our family was permanently altered—that’s
a lot of change for everyone, especially the kids. But because I was
dealing with my own grief and anxiety following my divorce, recognizing
anxiety in my son felt overwhelming. I was barely learning to cope with
my own, much less deal with his. And how do you help a small child deal
with anxiety in a healthy way, anyway? What follows are some of the
things I’ve learned.
Signs that your child may suffer from anxiety
According to the Child Mind Institute, anxiety is one of the most common emotional problems in children and can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from excessive, crippling worry to meltdowns and tantrums.
My son was always a very serious child. He was curious and happy, but he also had a tendency to worry. After my husband moved out, those worries increased. Being separated from me was often unbearable for him, even for short periods of time. Leaving him with a sitter, even a beloved family member, was met with tears and withdrawal. He developed a fear of the dark and started hiding food under his pillow. It didn’t take long before I knew we needed help.
Luckily, I was surrounded by a strong support system. As we began to deal with my son’s anxiety, I continued to work with my counselor on my own. We learned how to manage our feelings and deal with stressors as a family.
Tips for helping your anxious child
Don’t avoid things that make the child anxious. It’s tempting to want to shelter our children from the things that make them anxious, but doing so actually reinforces those fears. Children might think, If mom won’t let me do this, it must be dangerous!
Instead, talk to your child during high-anxiety experiences and reassure him that you’ll be there to help him get through it. Encourage your child to tolerate his feelings of anxiety, assuring him that the feelings will pass. Be present.
Be positive, but set realistic expectations. Anticipating something we fear can be worse than the actual event, but with an anxious child, it’s important to set expectations about what will happen. If your child fears the dentist, reading books and talking about what will happen may ease her anxiety.
The trick is to work with your child to find the right balance of preparation. Giving my son too much information with too much time to stew on it can be a nightmare. But letting him know what to expect allows him to put a name to his feelings and gives us a chance to talk about how he might handle his anxiety before it actually occurs.
Model healthy ways of dealing with anxiety. Children learn best by observation. Telling your child not to be anxious when he can clearly see your anxiety isn’t going to work. Modeling healthy ways of dealing with anxiety is the first step toward not only helping your child but also creating healthy habits for the whole family. Practicing relaxation techniques will help you and your children know how to deal with anxious situations when they arise. And naming your feelings helps your child learn to articulate how he is feeling and recognize that even mom feels scared or worried or anxious sometimes, too.
Find a good play therapist. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As Solo Moms, it is sometimes hard to ask for help because we’re afraid people will think we can’t take care of our kids. But knowing when to ask for help is one of the most important lessons you’ll learn as a Solo Mom.
When my son’s anxiety became worse, I asked my own counselor for a referral. She sent me to a play therapist. I’d never even heard of play therapy at the time, but as the therapist worked with my son, I began to see changes in his ability to cope with stress. My son loves his time with the play therapist because it’s fun, and I love the coaching I get. She gives me tools that I can use to help my son handle his anxiety and, as a result, I feel more able to help myself and my children. To find a play therapist near you, visit the Association for Play Therapy.
Don’t forget self-care. Solo parenting while coping with anxiety can seem impossible. And when you’re dealing with a high-anxiety child, you’re going to need to find a way to help your child while still helping yourself. Don’t forget to find time for self-care, whether it’s a hot bath or a
soothing cup of tea. You can incorporate self-care strategies into your
family’s wellness plan. For instance, exercise and meditation are
effective ways of managing stress. Creating an exercise plan that you
can do as a family and practicing relaxation together will introduce
self-care as a natural part of your daily routine.
Amy Rivers is a writer and mother of two. She has a master’s degree with concentrations in psychology and political science, and enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction pieces about women and women’s issues. Her debut novel, Wallflower Blooming, was released in August 2016. You can follow her on Twitter at @WritingRivers and learn more about her work at her website, www.amyrivers.com.
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