5 ways to help kids with special needs embrace anxiety

Susan Millner’s 8-year-old daughter was ecstatic when her mom signed her up for a cooking class. She envisioned whipping up fun and delicious recipes during the week leading up to it. But on the day of the class, she had a sudden change of heart. 

“She melted down, saying she didn’t want to go,” Millner says. “At first I couldn’t figure out why, and then I read between the lines and realized that it was her anxiety.”

 The Highland Park mom and clinical social worker recognized that a new experience, an unfamiliar setting, and being thrust into the company of strangers were triggers. 

“Once I understood how she was feeling, I acknowledged her anxiety and firmly explained to her that she needed to try the class since she had committed.” 

Millner and her daughter developed a written plan for success that included a schedule of events for the day, arriving early to acquaint herself with the venue, and meeting with the instructor to explain her daughter’s nerves. 

The girl ultimately loved the class. 

Any parent of a child struggling with anxiety can relate. One in eight children have anxiety disorders in the U.S., and diagnoses are on the rise. As parents, we are our children’s greatest advocates and resources. 

Here are five ways parents can help their children embrace anxiety:

We need to embrace our anxiety first

Our children react to our feelings, and as parents we serve as role models for how to manage anxiety.

“When parents are anxious about their children’s anxiety, they are unable to provide a sense of security for their child,” says Dr. Michelle Flowers, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry on the North Shore. “Children can manage a multitude of stressors quite well, and resilience is, in some cases, largely determined by the way they perceive their parents’ response.” 

Normalize it 

Anxiety disorders cause the brain circuitry that controls threat response to go awry and to send out alarms too frequently. While it’s more intense for them, we need to remind our kids that everyone has anxiety and that it is a normal part of childhood.“Parents who are open to talking about anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviors cultivate a safe and supportive atmosphere for children to verbalize their worries and portray the very important message to kids that ‘Your thoughts and feelings are OK’ and ‘I can handle your distress,’” Dr. Allison Lobel, director of Child & Adolescent Services for Wellington Counseling Group in Chicago, says. 

Rebecca, who lives in Northbrook, applies this strategy with her 9-year-old son through an exercise they call Pit and Peak. 

“We tell each other the pit and peak of our day—the high and low. This gives him time to reflect on his day and see that while things may not have gone the way he had hoped, tomorrow is a new day, and that he had a number of successes that day. Also, I share with him the pit and peak of my day, so he sees that I struggle, but that I am able to move on.”  

Convey that anxiety is a companion, not a boogeyman

Anxiety causes stomach aches, sweating, muscle tension, rapid heart rates and difficulty sleeping, so the desire for kids to run from their anxiety is understandable. But it actually exacerbates the situation. Rather, we should walk them through it and process the anxious feelings. 

“When parents sit with a child in distress, it sends the powerful message that it is not scary to the parent,” Lobel says. “A parent that maintains a disposition of calm, curiosity and patience will serve as a valuable external resource for the child to develop an internalized capacity to overcome his/her anxiety.” 

Naturally, we want to seek relief for our kids, but Flowers cautions against rushing them through an anxious episode.

“Sometimes parents minimize anxiety by saying things like ‘That’s nothing to be afraid of!’ and miss opportunities to empower their children by guiding them through alternative solutions. 

Instead, say ‘It sounds like you were nervous about what your teacher was going to say because you forgot your homework. I wonder if having that feeling today might help you to remember your assignments in the future. Would you like me to help you think of some ways to do that?’” 

Confront the worst-case scenario 

“What ifs” send anxiety into overdrive. What if I miss the bus? What if I have a nightmare? What if the teacher calls on me and I don’t know the answer? The best practice is to play out the what ifs for our kids and show them that the worst thing that could happen isn’t that bad. Dr. Rachael Levine, a school psychologist at North Shore Academy Elementary, recommends writing out children’s fears and then developing a plan together.

“It facilitates activation around problem-solving and promotes a greater capacity to feel in control—which is counter to the sense of being out of control during moments of high anxiety. 

Having a visual and written record of possible outcomes helps cultivate potentially beneficial outcomes.”

Create a support system

It takes a village, and obtaining outside support can serve as a lifelong tool to help children cope with anxiety. 

“Expanding a child’s network of support is also an important component of mastering anxiety, so there is a greater likelihood of success across multiple environments,” Lobel says. 

“Communicating and collaborating with teachers, instructors, parents, doctors, babysitters, etc., can facilitate an atmosphere of consistency and predictability for a child that feels as though they aren’t on an island alone with their anxiety.”

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