Toned Photo of Sad Teenager with anxiety Face closeup with Focus on an Eye

Six Ways To Help Your Child or Teen With Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural and essential part of daily human existence. We all live with worries and stress from time to time, but when anxiety begins to interfere with a young person’s life – when they can no longer face school, or have problems interacting with friends, or performing simple tasks – what can we as parents and caregivers do to help them face seemingly insurmountable fears?

Dr. Jed Baker has a new book out entitled Overcoming Anxiety in Children and Teens where he outlines both the science and art of anxiety therapy. The science of overcoming anxiety is using the well-researched approach called gradual exposure therapy which involves helping individuals gradually face their fears. The art of therapy is figuring out how to actually convince someone to face their fears.

In a YouTube video online, Dr. Baker explains that most of the high functioning kids don’t come to see him because they want therapy; they are there because their parents want them to be there. He says in order to get them on board he starts from a positive place: with their own goals and dreams. He then explains that once the kids are in a positive place, he can then talk about how they wouldn’t want any challenges to get in the way of those dreams, what those challenges might be, and what they can do to overcome them.

Dr. Baker feels that education is key for both parents and children to understand their “anxiety alarms”, and the role of the limbic system. Teaching kids to understand that some alarms work for us – like when we are on the road and a car is coming – but that some don’t – like when we are afraid of germs in our own kitchens.  He teaches children and teens how to decide what alarms to listen to, and which ones to ignore, by showing them how to “think like a scientist”. For instance, with his own fear of flying, when he “thinks like a scientist” and looks at the research and numbers, he can quell his own anxiety with knowledge that research has shown flying to be one of the safest modes of transportation in the world.

Other than education, and logic, what are the best ways to help your child or teen overcome their anxiety?

1) Don’t force compliance: Forcing your child to do things that cause them anxiety will just make it worse. When they express fear, tell them it’s ok not to do it. Gradually expose them. Say, “Ok then, don’t do it –just watch,” and once they’ve watched you can move into, “well now that you’ve seen it, do you want to try the first part?”…and so on.

2) Break down the fear into little steps: Most people can’t face their biggest fear. So you have to break it down. If a child is too afraid to talk to their teacher, you can start with: maybe they can write down their response, and then: maybe they can whisper their response to a friend, then: whispering to the teacher, and then: maybe talking to the teacher. You can also offer younger children an incentive like a snack or iPad time. In teens, the intrinsic reward of feeling pride that they successfully overcame their fear is usually enough.

3) Model it ahead of time: Let them see charts, or try out the action or idea before they are expected to do it. Sometimes role playing what will happen helps if the anxiety is over going to a new place, or doing a specific activity.

4) Remember the 80/20 rule: Give them 80% of what they can do easily, before they get to the 20% that is challenging, so they build confidence before doing it. Then make sure they have lots of support and help during the 20%, so that it turns into a positive “win” experience.

5) It’s OK to ask for help: It’s OK to ask for help. In fact it’s smarter. And it’s OK to take a break if you need to. That’s more preferable than hiding under your desk or running out of the school

6) Don’t lose hope: Anxiety can be a long road to overcome, but Dr. Baker explains that the most important thing you can do is to follow advice laid out in the book “Optimistic Parenting” by his colleague Mark Durand, and stay hopeful. As he says:

“When we give up hope, when we feel overwhelmed, then we don’t progress anymore. The thing for us to keep in mind is that things in fact can and do get better –maybe not a hundred percent- but we chip away at things overtime.”

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  1. Shininsun says:

    That was so well written. My son has just entered. A depressed state, a slump that he needs to get out of if he is to do well in his exams.  So your article was very timely and much appreciated.  I am surprised that you have not referred to exercise or lack of sleep being strong contributors to this viscous cycle of anxiety, but I am sure that was meant to be covered by your global approach or that the o he give was not to cover the many reasons anxiety can increase. . Have a happy new year and please keep writing. 

    • You are absolutely correct about lack of sleep and exercise being contributors to increased anxiety. We explore these in-depth in our Low Arousal Approach 3 day training courses. There are also excellent studies on cortisol and exercise. Regular exercise helps regulate cortisol to avoid spikes at odd times of the day (in the middle of the night, for example). Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts. I love hearing from my readers who share real life situations. Anxiety is a huge topic and I tried to hit some highlights in under 800 words. Thank you for your encouragement – I really appreciate it!

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