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Connecting With Your Anxious Child

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By Jamie Roach

You take your 6-year-old to school and they stick to your side like a piece of cling wrap. What do you feel? Your middle schooler gives you a hug one minute and calls you every name in the book the next minute. How do you respond? Your college freshman is miserable and is begging to come home. Do you let them?

While it is impossible to know what is going on inside each of these kids, it appears that each one is struggling with the critical developmental task of differentiating. Differentiation involves the development of one’s sense of self and carries with it the ability to manage one’s own anxieties and avoid being sucked into the anxiety of others. I like to think of being differentiated as the ability to love and trust one’s self. When we lack autonomy or differentiation, we feel like something is missing or defective in ourselves and become overly dependent upon the presence of another in order to feel calm. The feeling of being alone increases the level of anxiety one is already experiencing in their body.

There is one fundamental question every child is (unconsciously) asking their parents. Will you be there (emotionally) for me when I need you? The anxious child has told themselves, “Maybe.” The pull or tension between the hope that you will be and the fear that you won’t be grows until it feels intolerable. When you are around, they are constantly watching to make sure you don’t leave and when you are absent they are constantly looking for ways to connect with you. This constant vigilance becomes exhausting and impossible to maintain. We want to help them, but how?

All of us learn inner regulation through interactive regulation. In other words, children learn how to calm their inner world through the relationships they share with their parents. This is why it is so important for parents to be differentiated from, as well as be connected to, their children. To the extent we are dependent upon our children’s happiness for our own, we become slaves to their emotions. The tail is now wagging the dog. Parents who are differentiated are like the thermostat of a home to which their children are the temperature.

Anxiety, like other feelings, is rooted in our bodies. This is why trying to think our way out of our anxious feelings often doesn’t work. Reducing anxiety involves helping our children feel safe. This is why good enough parenting begins with who you are and not what you say.

 

10 keys to help your anxious child find calm:

  1.  Check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Children naturally become like their parents. Before helping your child experience calm, you must be calm.
  2.  Listen to what your children are feeling.
  3.  Respond to your child’s needs with consistency and reliability.
  4.  Pay attention to what you are communicating non-verbally through body language. (i.e. Don’t look at your phone when talking to your child).
  5.  Focus on their self-development.
  6.  Respect their individuality and help them differentiate.
  7.  Avoid “helicopter parenting” techniques.
  8.  Teach and model the difference between self-care and being selfish.
  9.  Don’t overly privilege the emotion of fear. Validate the experience of all emotions.
  10.  When you mess up, apologize and repair any damage done.


Peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). In other words, peace is not something you can manufacture or control. It is a gift we receive from God. We can open our hearts and make room for God in our lives. Why not take a few moments right now to breathe in deeply. As you do, imagine God’s presence and peace filling your lungs. Notice any shifts you may feel in your body as you cycle through a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that God is with you and for you. You are whole and loved in this moment.

While some kids develop strategies of clinginess in order to deal with anxiety, some kids develop other strategies, such as withdrawing. I’ll be taking the next couple of months to continue this short series on anxiety in kids and teens, so be sure and follow along. With anxiety being so prevalent in youth today, it is important that parents understand the signs of anxiety as well as ways to help our kids cope.

I welcome your thoughts as you follow along through this series on anxiety. Send me an email with your questions and comments. 

 


Get to know Jamie Roach: Jamie has served on the staff of Youthfront for 35 years, working with students, parents and youth workers. His passion is seeing people live their best life. Jamie is a spiritual director, author, communicator and Licensed Professional Counselor. He received his Master of Divinity degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary and a Master of Arts in Counseling from Mid-America Nazarene University. Jamie loves Nebraska football, reading, walks in the woods and hanging out with his family. Jamie and his wife Lea Ann have four children: Megan (29), Haley (27), Logan (24) and Sophie (21).

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