Preventing Anxiety Problems in Children
There are a number of things parents can do that will reduce the odds of their child struggling with anxiety. These tips and techniques can also improve the condition of kids already struggling with an anxiety disorder.
1. Try to keep stable routines
A study which tracked children over 13 years found that consistent routines could buffer against anxiety. Another one found that babies who had more dependable routines at 1 month were less likely to be anxious at age 10. (Park, 2010) So simply providing your child with a stable and consistent environment early on can protect against future anxiety problems.
2. Watch how you react to stress
A surefire way to raise anxious kids is to be the 5-alarm parent who goes around overreacting to every little obstacle in life. If it's an emergency when they lost their shoes, and an emergency when you're running 10 minutes late for school, and an emergency when someone cuts you off in traffic, and an emergency when it isn't done perfectly, kids are going to absorb this high-tension atmosphere and become anxiety-prone themselves. So be sure to monitor how you react to everyday stress. Kids are learning from you.
3. Don't overprotect or over-manage your child
Overprotection creates anxiety problems because it teaches children that they can't manage on their own. "If Mom seems nervous every time her child falls down, the child is likely to become nervous when she falls," says Jeffrey L. Brown, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College. (Tarkon, 2013) When parents overprotect, kids become dependent upon you to handle their problems.
Overcontrolling environments present a similar problem. They smother a child and limit their ability to make decisions and learn from their mistakes. Encourage children to take the lead and explore. Show them you have faith in their ability to manage life on their own. "When a child faces fears and challenges, like meeting new people, starting school, or getting a vaccination, she'll begin to develop a sense of mastery and coping skills," says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Mredicine. (ibid) But when parents start tap dancing around a child's anxiety, this limits the opportunities for them to have these type of experiences that would improve their anxious temperament.
4. Don't overstimulate
Psychologist Susan Elkind coined the term "the hurried child" to describe the modern phenomenon of kids who are taxied around from one organized activity to the next and have just about every moment of their life scheduled. Don't do this. Kids need some down time, and they need plenty of opportunities where they create things to do rather than have their itinerary set out before them. This type of rushed, overscheduled environment causes many problems, but chief amongst them is anxiety.
5. Give lots of touch and affection
Touching children in a soothing, pleasurable, or affectionate manner changes how their brain is wired in a way that protects against anxiety. Such close contact releases feel-good neurotransmitters in their brain that suppress stress hormones. Over time this inhibits a child's stress response, giving them a greater immunity against anxiety.
6. Get them out in nature
Time spent in natural environments can have a soothing effect similar to that of touch. While not as robust as the effects that come from physical affection, time spent in nature has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones, lower a person's resting heart rate, reduce their blood pressure, improve breathing patterns, and otherwise change a person's physiology in a way that directly counters anxiety.
7. Adopt healthy attitudes towards failure
Respond to setbacks in a positive way, encouraging children to learn from their mistakes without panicking when things don't go as planned.