Healthy Kids YMCA Child Care

The dos (and don’ts) of parenting an anxious child

Mother hugging her young son

Imagine it’s Monday morning, and you’re driving your child to school. As you sit in rush hour traffic, a somber voice from the backseat of the car mutters, “Do I have to go to school today? My tummy really hurts.”

You’ve been through this before, so you reply, “Sweetie, you are going to school today. I’m sure you will have a great day, but if you’re not feeling better by lunch, have Ms. Samuels call me, and I will pick you up.”

At 12:45 precisely, the phone rings. It’s your child’s school.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, anxiety is the most common mental health issue among Canadian children, and it’s on the rise. With the increased prevalence of childhood anxiety disorders, many parents are searching for ways to help their children cope with mental illness.

Therapy and medication exist as viable options, but what else can be done to support kids with anxiety disorders? What are the dos (and don’ts) when it comes to helping children manage anxiety? For the answers to these tough questions, I turned to Jonathan Canzio, Psychoeducational Consultant at Advanced Psychology Services, for guidance.

Don’t fear anxiety

“Anxiety is a natural thing,” says Canzio. “It’s one of the ways that our mind and body tries to keep us safe from danger. It’s when anxiety gets in the way of us doing the things we want or need to do is when it becomes a problem.” Reassure your child that worrying is normal, but also help them understand that it’s not okay for those feelings to make them feel victimized or impede them from living a happy life.

Do create a toolkit of coping mechanisms

Creating a toolkit of coping skills for managing anxiety is beneficial for both kids and parents. There is an array of effective techniques that can calm an anxious child; however, one method that Canzio suggests is mindfulness: the practice of paying attention to the present moment. Through mindfulness, “a child can learn to identify and challenge anxiety-producing thoughts when they arise.” Exercises like yoga encourage mindfulness and can be a great bonding experience for parent and child when practiced together.

Don’t punish children for their anxiety

Anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. In some children, the overwhelming intensity of their anxious feelings can cause them to act in a disruptive manner. Punishing an anxious child “can strain the parent-child relationship and make the home environment feel turbulent,” warns Canzio. He recommends encouraging wanted behaviour rather than punishing anxious kids for unwanted behaviour. Positive parenting is one discipline method that can foster positive actions.

Do listen to your child

Never be dismissive of a child’s anxious feelings. It’s important to listen and be open-minded. If a child feels that their parent is approachable and they will be safe from judgement, “they’re more likely to express their problems and worries,” says Canzio. Creating “a warm and calm climate at home serves as a buffer against many mental health difficulties.”

For more information about anxiety and relief tips, here are some recommended resources:

Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents by Ronald Rapee and Ann Wignall
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Public Health Agency of Canada

Due to the variety of anxiety disorders, certain coping methods may be more effective than others. Consult a medical professional that is aware of your child’s condition in order to determine how best to meet their mental health needs.