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My Child Struggles with Anxiety. What Can I Do?

How you can help your child manage anxiety

Q: My 6-year-old son worries about everything! He worries about going to Sunday school a week in advance. I talked to his teacher and she says he hasn't had any problems with the other kids. He always seems to end up having a good time, but the next week he'll start crying again, worrying about Sunday school. He also worries about riding the bus to school. I've checked with the bus driver to see if there are any problems and there are none. His teacher says he gets along with everybody in class, he does good work, he is always in a good mood, and everybody likes him. I just don't know what to do.

A: I want to applaud your ability to notice your son’s emotions and the investigative approach you took to discover what might be going on with him. I think your concerns with your son’s worry are warranted—he does seem more anxious than most children his age. However, there are steps you can take to help reduce his level of worry.

First ask yourself a few questions: Is there a history of anxiety in your family? Sometimes children are high strung because of a genetic predisposition to worry. If you or your husband is a hand-wringer, your son might simply be carrying on that personality trait.

A family tendency to worry can also be passed on through the way you or your husband deal with stress in your own lives. Does your son see you getting anxious about situations in your life, or does he see you quickly jump into confident problem-solving or prayer? Often as parents we model worry, fear, or anger without really realizing it because the emotions are so consuming at the time.

You can use the information you’ve received from his teachers to encourage him in a specific way … and help him gain confidence in his ability to handle stressful situations.

The type of anxiety your son is engaged in is called anticipatory anxiety, which means he worries ahead of time. That helps him get the emotion out of the way before the actual event. Right now his anxiety is over the top and it’s overwhelming to him. The good news is that this kind of anxiety can be dealt with through a combination of coaching, relaxation techniques, and prayer.

It sounds like your son is doing a stellar job with social skills both at school and church. You can use the information you’ve received from his teachers to encourage him in a specific way (like, “Your teacher says Andrew really enjoys playing with you”) and help him gain confidence in his ability to handle stressful situations. Sit down together with your son and your spouse and make a list of the behaviors your son finds helpful or relaxing, such as talking with a friend, saying hello to his teacher, knowing what the coming lesson is going to be, having a regular place to sit, and so on. Keep this list handy and talk through it whenever he begins to worry.

Simple breathing techniques can also help your son manage his anxiety in the heat of the moment. Teach him to take ten slow, deep breaths when he starts to feel nervous. Have him imagine that he’s breathing in the peace of Jesus and breathing out his worries. Then teach him to tell himself, I can do it. This is going to be fun. If you have time, you can do this exercise with him at home before he goes to school or church. Go over the list you made while he does his deep breathing to help him calm down and feel more in control.

This exercise might feel a little strange at first and your son might not believe it will help. But practice this process together for five to seven minutes at least four times a week for a couple of weeks until he can do it on his own. When he’s mastered it, come up with a quick cue you can use to remind him of the technique, such as, “Remember to breathe.”

Finally, pray daily with your son and ask God to help him manage his worry. As a family, memorize Philippians 4:6-7 (you might want to simplify this to “Be anxious for nothing but in everything pray”). If you don’t see any change after a month or so, I recommend having your son assessed by a child psychologist who can determine if there is some deeper cause for his anxiety.

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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