7 Tools For Managing Childhood Anxiety

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Happy mom and daughter on the beach

Most kids and adults just want their anxiety to go away NOW. As parents, we try to anticipate and cope with the fear of our child or teen by trying to protect them from the pain.

I don't know about you, but this rarely worked in my family because the worries just came back.

Anxiety — the physiological response to powerful worries — needs to be addressed head on. We have to teach our kids tools to cope with their worries so they feel empowered and confident enough to take risks and meet unforeseen challenges.

RELATED: 13 Small Things Anxiety Makes You Do

When Anxiety Takes Over

Even though anxiety loves reassurance because it offers short-term relief from discomfort, telling kids that everything will be okay or not to worry only increases long-term anxiety. These reassurances don't work because you are not teaching the necessary coping skills your child or teen actually needs.

Instead, everybody benefits when you take a different approach. Although it’s more useful to acknowledge their fears, validate their concerns and brainstorm solutions together, let's face it —this can be a tougher road to travel.  

Unlike nervousness or worry, anxiety can take over a child or teen’s life.

Worry differs from anxiety. Worry refers to how we think about something.

Anxiety is our physiological response based on negative thoughts and distorted beliefs. We cannot eliminate anxiety: It’s a natural human response that’s evolved for survival. It thrives in the petri dish of natural child development and in a culture that is obsessed with comparisons and instant gratification.

Without useful self-management strategies and the ability to access the internal resources they need, anxious kids freak out or refuse to do anything. But when they learn how to process worried, negative thinking and rely on past successes for confident choices in the present, they are better able to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing — and they can accept the possibility of disappointment.

This is how neurodivergent youngsters develop the resilience that’s crucial for becoming competent, successful adults.

RELATED: 12 Struggles Only People With Anxiety Will Understand 

Neurodivergence or anxiety?

Despite misdiagnoses, ADHD, ASD, twice exceptionalism (2E) and learning disabilities differ significantly from anxiety. While neurodivergent kids often wrestle with organization, working memory challenges, and impulse control, kids with anxiety struggle with compulsive, obsessive or perfectionistic behaviors, psychosomatic ailments and debilitating specific phobias.

Issues related to food, housing or job insecurity, systemic racism or trauma further intensify anxiety. According to the CDC, approximately 7.1% (children aged 3-17 years old) currently have an anxiety diagnosis and the rates are higher for females (38%) than for males (26.1%). For 34% of kids with ADHD, anxiety is often a frequent companion because of neurological patterns and the ways that executive functioning challenges and delays make it harder for kids to manage big feelings.

Plus, neurodiverse youngsters often miss visual or auditory cues and misread facial expressions, fostering social anxiety. Their concerns about ‘messing up again’ amp up into persistent worry about the next time that they will (unwittingly) mess up or forget something important.

Children and teens become overwhelmed beyond their coping skills and anxiety moves in.

RELATED: What It Feels Like To Have Anxiety And Depression At The Same Time

Anxious teens and children need to learn how to tolerate and deal with uncertainty, realistically evaluate the safety of a given situation and apply tools from past successes to the present. When kids can tolerate the discomfort of not knowing and the possibility of disappointment, when they have effective strategies to rely on, they develop the resilience that’s crucial for becoming a competent, successful adult. 

Anxiety is a shape-shifter. Just when you think you’ve figured how to deal with one issue, another issue pops up. It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole. To avoid this frustration, you’ve got to step back and see how your teen’s anxiety operates and not react to the content.

It’s the reaction to the worry, not getting rid of it, that makes the difference. Dismissing concerns won't honor the reality of their worry. It will grow. Reassurance also doesn’t provide a lasting solution because your teen learns to rely on other people to make things okay for them — even though no one really can.

Instead, validate their concern by saying “You’re right to be scared. You’re not sure you can handle that. It’s natural to worry in that situation. What else could you say to yourself?” This lets them know that you heard their worry and acknowledge that it’s real while simultaneously guiding them toward managing it.

RELATED: The One Mindfulness Technique That Eliminates Anxiety Instantly

7 Tools for Managing Anxiety Childhood Anxiety

Practical tools for helping neurodivergent kids manage their anxiety: 

1. Manage your own concerns first  

Kids have incredible radars. They easily pick up when their parents are stressed or anxious and it increases their own distress, conscious or unconscious. The first step is to lower your own anxiety. Discuss your concerns with your partner, a friend, extended family member or counselor. Write these down and then strategize responses or to-do action items to each by creating an “Anxiety Decelerator Plan.” This ADP will help you feel like you have some control. For instance, if your child needs more academic support, you can contact the school to set up a meeting. 

RELATED: 12 Life Skills Only People With Anxiety Can Teach You

2. Identify their worries

We can’t assist kids in turning down the frequency or intensity of their anxiety unless we know what’s causing it. Worried thinking and environmental triggers can set off children and teens. We want to stop this tumble. During your weekly or twice-a-week check-in meetings (these are a must), explore what might be uncomfortable or uncertain for them. Write these down. Pick one fear together to address first and when its volume is lower, you can pick another. People can really only change one thing at a time. 

3. Change the relationship to anxiety

Think like Sherlock Holmes and investigate anxiety like a puzzle. When, where and how does it show up? What are its triggers? Brainstorm with your teen what to say when worry arrives: “Hmm, that sounds like worry. What could you say to size it down?” Separate anxiety from who your teen is. Many kids feel powerless about anxiety and benefit from redefining it as something distinct from who they are. 

RELATED: How To Use Your Anxiety To Grow Into The Person You're Meant To Be

4. Stay neutral and compassionate without 'fixing' things 

Although you must intervene in situations of bullying, violence, academic failure or risky behaviors, most of the time your teen needs your support in thinking through responses to tricky situations, not solving them. Kids of anxious parents are more likely to be anxious themselves. Monitor your reactions to your child’s anxiety and refrain from discussing your concerns in public. React neutrally regardless of their irritating, frustrating and sometimes scary behaviors. These behaviors are demonstrating how out of control your child or teen feels inside, which is why anxiety exists in the first place. 

RELATED: 5 Ways The Most Successful People Turn Anxiety Into Productivity

5. Start small to build confidence

Anxiety is great at erasing memories of past successes which is compounded for kids with ADHD, ASD, 2E, and LD and their working memory challenges. Choose a goal that’s within reach and work on taking a small step first. What would your teen want to do if anxiety wasn’t there? Help them recall times when they took a risk and succeeded. Then, discuss how those strategies can apply to this situation. Offer them language: “I’m willing to feel unsure. I can grab onto my courage and try this.” This calms the anxious brain. 

6. Opt for curiosity over anxiety

It’s tough to stand in uncertainty and, frankly, adolescence is filled with unknowns. Kids often feel a distinct lack of control in their lives which fuels their anxiety. Instead of worrying thoughts, though, you can assist kids to shift to curiosity. Where anxiety shuts youngsters down and predicts negative outcomes, curiosity opens them up to possibilities. Work with them to say “I wonder about ...” rather than “I’m worried about ...”

RELATED: 3 Ways Parents Can Help Their Chronically-Worried Kids Deal With Anxiety

7. Focus on building resilience 

Resilience is the antidote to anxiety. When your kids identify strengths and people who care about them and develop an interest, they feel more confident. Find ways to connect on things that matter to them like a favorite computer game or funny YouTube video. Nurturing this connection will improve their willingness to work with you in tackling anxiety. 

Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator and has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences and mental health challenges and their impact on school and family dynamics for more than 30 years. 

This article was originally published at The author's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.