Parenting an anxious child

Locking Hearts Together

Josh Lockhart

My daughter hates having a loose tooth. Her anxiety increases every time she has one. She will not let my wife or I pull her tooth out. She truly hates the feeling. This is because the first time a tooth fell out it was a really uncomfortable experience for her.

So now when she has a loose tooth she begins to withdraw from activities and stops eating crunchy foods because she doesn’t want to risk the discomfort of her tooth falling out. We have found a solution as a family. While not the most frugal approach, we learned that she trusts the dentist and when her tooth is loose we take her to the dentist and pay to get it pulled. That way she can resume participating in her life.

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While this is my daughter’s experience with anxiety, it is important to understand everyone has experienced fear and anxiety at some sort of level. Fear is healthy. It is the body’s response to a threat. It is when the fear response happens when it shouldn’t, or when the response to the fear is not proportional, that it becomes anxiety.

When anxiety hits, the brain goes into its survival mode and responds with fight, flight or freeze instincts. This means the ability to think, recall and process information is limited. Some people even “black out” and can’t recall what happened during a highly anxious moment. It typically takes the brain and body 60 to 90 minutes to calm back down.

In the cases of children, they may not be aware of what is happening. All they know is they are overwhelmed. The cerebral cortex, the brain’s captain, is no longer in command when the brain is emotionally flooded, so children need someone to act as their captain during those moments.

However, parenting a child who is anxious can be frustrating and difficult. The child may be clingy, aggressive and have sleep difficulties. This may result in school avoidance or withdrawal from activities.

As parents, the best way to help a child with anxiety is to create an environment that establishes and maintains safety. Typically this is achieved by creating a stable and consistent routine. This way a child knows what to expect and what is expected during a day.

It is helpful as a parent to learn if your child benefits from mind to body – meditation, mindfulness or visualizations — or body to mind – yoga, hot baths or bilateral movements – exercises to soothe. Each child is different, and each situation may be different as with which kind of soothing will help.

It is also important to note, as the Alcoholics Anonymous programs teaches, that being hungry, angry, tired or lonely makes one vulnerable for relapse and, in this case, makes one's response to fear more likely.

But most of all, love your child, show empathy and get into your child’s world to understand what increases their anxiety and what helps calm them.

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