Having anxiety as an adult can be debilitating. And for a parent, watching a child struggle with anxiety can be heartbreaking and confusing. Many parents have trouble finding the right words, strategies, and environmental conditions that will help children find their confidence and overcome their anxiety.
In her new book, Anxiety Free Kids: An Interactive Guide for Parents and Children, Bonnie Zucker provides parents with the tools they need to engage their children in the work of breaking free from anxiety.
“The most comprehensive approach to treating a child’s problem involves integrating the system in which the child lives,” Zucker writes.
To achieve this, Zucker includes a companion guide just for kids that is designed to be completed along with the original book as well as an exercise at the end of each chapter for parents and kids to complete together.
Anxiety, Zucker says, has three parts. It can take over our thoughts in the form of negative self-talk, thought errors, worries, and perception of irrational threat. It can also cause physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, sweating, muscle tension and shallow breathing. And anxiety can cause us to avoid certain people, places and things.
Treating anxiety then, means counteracting the thoughts that escalate our worries by changing our inner dialogue, using relaxation methods to reduce physical symptoms and taking active steps to desensitize ourselves to our fears.
“When a child is exposed to the anxiety-provoking situation, he or she will experience anxiety. However, if the child stays in the situation, the anxiety will decrease. This process is called habituation,” Zucker writes.
Zucker introduces two important concepts; children should be taught to externalize their anxiety, and parents should create a team with their children, which involves setting team goals to combat the child’s fears.
For example, parents can help their children see that each time they avoid something because of their anxiety, the anxiety wins. On the other hand, when children can face their fears, they win. Zucker even offers a fun exercise kids can to help keep track of the times they overcome their fears and build their confidence.
Zucker also suggests a ladder exercise, in which parents and kids make a list of the child’s fears, placing them from smallest to largest as they move up the ladder. As children move up the ladder, Zucker advises parents to “stop accommodating the child’s anxiety in a step-by-step fashion as they take steps on the ladder.”
Teaching children to recognize the signs and symptoms of their anxiety is also an integral component of learning to manage their behavioral reactions to it. Zucker uses the image of a beaker with fluid inside, representing a person’s stress level. While everybody has some stress, when the level gets too high additional stressors cause the beaker to overflow. By using relaxation techniques, such as yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing and mindfulness meditation, children can to take proactive steps to reduce their stress level and feel better and less anxious.
On overcoming the thoughts that accompany and escalate anxiety, Zucker presents the hallmark list of cognitive behavioral therapy thought distortions, such as magnifying, all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading, and overgeneralization, as well as several helpful charts to help children understand how these thoughts affect their feelings and behavior. One interesting technique Zucker suggests is that of detached mindfulness.
“You go from being a participant in your thoughts to an observer of them, which allows you to reclassify the thoughts as just symptoms of anxiety,” Zucker writes.
Facing the fears that accompany anxiety has less to do with feeling ready and more to do with simply taking action. Though it may feel counterintuitive, Zucker says parents should avoid reassuring their children.
“Reassurance validates the anxiety and makes your child more anxious. Although parents do not cause anxiety, the way they respond to the anxiety absolutely can influence it, in either good or bad ways,” Zucker writes.
A better option is to break the “exposures” to anxiety-provoking situations into small steps, keep them time limited and encourage children to challenge the anxiety and tolerate the discomfort it takes to overcome it.
How parents handle anxiety and what they model to their children also significantly influences how children respond. Zucker points to research on Parental Anxiety Management, which shows that children whose parents received training to learn to manage their own anxiety had better treatment outcomes, regardless of if their parents had anxiety or not.
“Having and showing empathy for your child and her struggle with anxiety is key. It’s crucial that your child feels understood by you, and that even if you don’t have firsthand experience with anxiety yourself, you can see and acknowledge her struggle and can validate the challenge of overcoming it,” Zucker writes.
Through simple and effective tools, Zucker’s book doesn’t just help parents and children understand anxiety and find ways to overcome it, but also strengthens the interactive approach and family bonds that make them better for it.
Anxiety Free Kids: An Interactive Guide for Parents and Children
Bonnie Zucker, PsyD
PruFrock Press (2016)