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Children And Anxiety: Helping Anxious Kids Target Their Fears

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Dear Susan,

My fourth grader is experiencing anxiety now that school has started. Not necessarily about school, but about everything else: What if the house burns down? What if we have a tornado, fire and thunderstorm all at once? What if she has an allergic reaction to a bug? Any suggestions?

Signed,
S.

Dear S.,

I recently had a child in my office with anxiety similar to what you're describing in your daughter; she worried that her mother would forget to pick her up at school or that her brother might get kidnapped or about the dog running away. Plagued by endless fears, this little girl found it very difficult to be at school and away from home, lest something awful happen in her absence.

Her mother was concerned, but also running low on patience. After trying again and again to banish her daughter's irrational fears with reasonable explanations, she turned to me for help.

Here is some of the advice I gave her that might work for you too.

1. Allow your daughter to vent -- within reason -- so her imagination doesn't have a chance to run wild with worries. It's better for children to share their concerns with a trusted adult than to daydream about increasingly scary scenarios.

2. Expose her to facts. Not long ago, I had an unusual number of what appeared to be mosquito bites. When I showed them to a clerk at a drugstore, she asked, “Are you sure those aren't from bedbugs?” I panicked -- what if I had brought bedbugs home from recent travels?

To deal with my own anxiety, I made friends with the worst thing that could happen (including visions of loads of laundry, exterminators, etc.), and came up with examples of similar situations I'd survived in the past. (If you've ever had a child come home with head lice, you know that you can live through all kinds of critters!) I then educated myself about bedbugs, reading up on them and comparing their bites to those of mosquitos. Finally, I studied my mattress as instructed, and found no evidence of bugs. The fear withered away, and calamine lotion got rid of the itching. While simply being told that I "needn't worry" wouldn't have been much help, by doing my homework, I was able to rid myself of fears that actually had no basis in reality.

My point is -- do the same for your daughter. Read her books about the things she's afraid of that show her they're not so scary. Show her videos on the Internet that do the same. Talk about being safe in your own home.

3. Model calmness. Children take their cues from the adults around them. They watch to observe how we take news about a traffic delay on our way to the airport, or a storm in a nearby town. Does your daughter see you react with panic when unexpected problems come your way? The more she watches her parents handling challenges calmly and confidently, the less likely she'll be to move into catastrophic thinking about potential disasters.

4. Limit your daughter's exposure to television, movies and news programs that may fuel her anxiety. We often forget how vulnerable children are to images and storylines that we think are no big deal (or even find entertaining). Particularly sensitive children -- and adults -- have trouble erasing violent scenes from their minds; it's better to avoid exposing your daughter to the nightly news, with stories about kidnappings, fires, etc., than to try to explain why these things aren't likely to happen to her.

5. Introduce "Little Fear Guy." Start by telling your daughter we all have a voice inside of us that is designed to keep us safe. Invite her to imagine this part of her as a little fellow who lives on her shoulder -- that's Little Fear Guy. If this little man thinks it is even remotely possible that her survival is threatened, he sounds the Fight or Flight alarm and makes her feel fear so she can take action to stay safe. The problem is, LFG takes his job so seriously that sometimes he sounds the alarm and generates bad feelings when we aren't actually in any danger at all.

So, ask your daughter what her LFG is telling her could cause a fire, thunderstorm and tornado to happen all at once, and where he gets his information.

This is a method I teach many parents and children, and most of the youngsters I have worked with respond very favorably to using LFG to create some distance from their worrisome thoughts. Sometimes their reactions are actually amusing. One little boy recently told me that his LFG shouted lots of scary things in his ear because he drinks too much Red Bull!

By modeling calmness, letting your daughter express her worries, and teaching her to put fearful thoughts at arm's length, you should be able to help her relax. But if her anxieties continue, or if they worsen, I would advise you to seek professional help by checking in with your school counselor or an experienced therapist who can offer support and guidance in helping her learn to manage her fearfulness.

Yours in parenting support,
Susan

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to parents@huffingtonpost.com and you could be featured in an upcoming column!

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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