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Managing Anxiety in Our Kids

How to help kids with anxiety

Expanding our own “window of tolerance” to be with difficult emotions is where the real superpower lies.

None of us have much time these days, so I’ll get right to it. First, a disclosure: I am a pediatrician and parent of two kids with anxiety. (Could those apples have fallen a little farther from this tree?) Still, despite managing anxiety with kids being familiar territory personally and professionally, I too find myself without answers much of the time.

In fact, as I write this I am struggling with whether or not Noah, my youngest, should be going to school despite having woken up with a tummy ache. These calculations are never easy. I want my child to feel heard, but if this ache is really anxiety, is it better to push on through? Add in the fear of infecting others, recent close calls, and the brain just fritzes. The only thing I am sure of, from the vantage points of both work and home, is this: We caregivers are weary. 

Like you, I don’t have perfect solutions to anxiety. But I do have a few suggestions based on my experience managing anxiety with kids:

1. Practice riding the wave of anxiety (theirs and yours)

 For good reason, this is one of the most common pieces of advice for anxiety. Intense anxiety, or panic, has its own rhythm – an intense escalation (or swell) and then eventually a receding. If we can accept our feelings, and those of our kids — even if we don’t like them — the wave of discomfort will pass faster. The more we tangle with the fear, which includes trying to squash it with submission or with a “solution,” the more it will grow. In parenting this may look like, “I see you struggling. I am here,” rather than, “It’s OK, you’ll feel better soon.” Meeting a child where they are rather than where we wish they were gives them the support to practice working through difficulty rather than feeling abandoned to it.

2. Get yourself to higher ground

 It can feel impossible to respond thoughtfully to kids when our own emotions are raw. Learn what strategies work for you to regain your bearings. Hide in the bathroom to cry if you need to. Get outside. Open the windows. Identify low-friction kid activities for those days you are on battery-save mode. Take care of yourself. Feed yourself when feeding your family.  Drink that coffee you poured. If nothing else, one deep breath with a strong sigh may bring the shift you need.

3. Learn about anxiety together

 Normalizing the experience of anxiety and understanding its biological roots can diffuse its power over kids and adults alike. Kids will be interested to learn about the evolution of the “worry brain” and how anxiety is not all bad. A good place to start is The free app Insight Meditation Timer offers mindfulness exercises and courses that you can do together.

4. Practice sitting with discomfort

This is the hardest — and the most important — principle. I’m unsure if there is anything more painful than seeing your child suffer. And yet, our efforts to protect our children from their distress may in fact cause harm. Avoidance can feed fear. When we rescue our children from facing their fears, we give them the message that they can’t handle them, and in doing so we fuel their anxiety. There’s a scientific term for this: “family accommodation.” 

Amidst pandemic life, bearing witness to our children’s struggles with anxiety is a frequent – sometimes daily – discomfort. How do we avoid accommodating our kids’ stress? A good start is allowing them to feel disappointed, sad or scared, without offering a quick fix. Instead, simply say, “I hear you” or “This is not what you wanted” or “I know this is hard, and I believe in you.” Perhaps activist and author Glennon Doyle blogged it best:

“Maybe our job as parents is not to protect our kids from pain, but to hold their hands and walk into their pain with them.”

Another reason we shouldn’t try to protect our children from suffering? Because we just can’t do it. Among the many harsh lessons of this pandemic is that we cannot predict what will happen or avoid negative experiences (even when we really want to). A unique brand of anxiety is bred when we see what we feel needs to be done (i.e., protect our kids from pain) and just don’t have the time, energy, or ability to do so. Every day I witness the toll on parents of failing at this impossible task. The evidence is in their own flailing bodies and spirits. But, painful as it is, there is also some freedom in accepting what we cannot fix and sitting in that discomfort.

Mental health challenges have increased exponentially with the pandemic, but many of these struggles also predated COVID. I see parents mourning “normal” on their kids’ behalf and although I feel this too, I want to hand them a grain of salt. Growing up is inherently challenging. Expanding our own “window of tolerance” to be with difficult emotions is where the real superpower lies. 

Easier said than done? Absolutely. But at least we know what we’re aiming for. 

5. Build your team

With both children and adults there exists a spectrum of difficult emotions. Clinical depression and anxiety need more than fresh air and a good night’s sleep. One of the important things we must model for our kids is when to ask for help. If you’re not sure things are “that bad,” start with a conversation with your child’s medical provider. If you don’t have one, ask at their school for resources. Managing the mental health of our children is hard, and you don’t need to do it alone. I’ll add that, as a pediatrician, I am convinced that the best investment you can make in your child is having a mental health professional for yourself. Even in the best of times, there is nothing like parenting to lay bare your own patterns of struggle. Working with a therapist to understand your own wiring is a worthy investment in your and your kids.

6. Don’t compare

Comparing (“We should be grateful we have jobs”) and guilt (“Why do I feel tired when others are actually sick?”) are energy-suckers that we cannot afford. We all can fall into the trap of believing others are getting this right while we alone are uniquely failing. Try not to. But if you insist on doing so, at least consider doing your self-grading on a parenting-during-a-global-pandemic-curve.

And, if you haven’t heard it elsewhere recently, hear it now:

You’re doing a lot better job than you think.

In the meantime, I’m still calculating: Is letting Noah stay home a family accommodation or is it doing the right thing by not spreading germs? Moreover, should I use my precious energy to coerce him out the door or kiss another kid-free day goodbye? Perhaps I’ll start with a glass of water (or if we’re being real, a scroll of my Instagram) and try to figure it out from there. Wish me luck.

Originally published April 9, 2022

About the Author

Sarah Bergman Lewis, MD