07/18/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Help! My Daughter Is Anxious


Dear Parent Coach,

My daughter is 10 and doesn't give me many problems, but she is an anxious child. If she hears about a burglary or a house that caught on fire, she can't sleep because she thinks it might happen to us. Even worse, she invents things to be afraid of, like thinking I will forget to pick her up at school. What should I do? For some children, low grade anxiety can transform something seemingly insignificant into a worry that keeps them awake at night and can even make daytime a sometimes scary place to inhabit. Rather than simply dismissing your child's irrational fears, here are some ideas for helping her cope better, and help you all get some sleep!
  • Avoid dismissing her fears or making light of them. The things your daughter is afraid of are very real to her, regardless of how impossible they may seem to you. I once had a child convinced that a miniature kidnapper was hiding in her beagle (dog.) You won't make much progress at reassuring her by simply trying to force her to let go of her silly concerns.
  • Introduce her to "Little Fear Guy." In my practice, this is one of my favorite strategies for helping anxious children distance themselves from the scary thoughts that generate fear. I tell them that they have a little creature who sits on their shoulder and whose job is to protect them. "Little Fear Guy's job is to keep us safe. If you're about to touch a hot stove or run into the street, he'll shout, 'No! Be careful!' and that's a good thing. But sometimes he takes his job too seriously, and tells us that something is dangerous when in fact it isn't." Instead of asking, "Why are you so afraid?", you'll ask, "What is Little Fear Guy telling you might happen?"
  • Help her develop confidence. Anxiety is often a reflection of a general sense of helplessness. A child (or adult) crippled by anxious thoughts feels powerless to effect change in important areas of her life. What are some of your daughter's natural talents? Provide her with the chance to pursue those with more depth, whether it's karate, painting or taking care of animals. The more sure of herself she becomes in one or two areas of interest, the stronger she'll feel at her core.
  • Let her offload her fears. Many children become willing to see how irrational their fears are when they have had a chance to release their pent up concerns. But parents often interfere with this process by immediately pointing out reasons they shouldn't be afraid. Let her tell you what she thinks when she lays in the dark, and respond with, "Tell me more." Get everything out in the open and then say something like, "Thank you for trusting me with your scary thoughts, sweetheart. I'm glad you told me. Can I tell you what I think?" Only then should you point out the ways her Little Fear Guy is exaggerating whatever danger she is fearing.
  • Pay attention to how you speak and behave. Children take their cues from their parents, watching us vigilantly to decide whether to be relaxed or worried when something happens out of the ordinary, whether it's walking by a barking dog or arriving a few minutes late to a gathering. Ensure that your daughter sees you taking things in stride without obsessing on what might go wrong when life takes an unexpected turn.
  • Tell her how you have coped with anxiety. Many of the children I work with who struggle with chronic fearfulness have at least one parent who is also anxious, or at least was as a child. Share with your daughter some of the things that you do when you're feeling uneasy. "I breathe deeply and slowly five times, while telling myself how safe I am." Or, "When I'm feeling nervous, I remind myself of all the ways that I am safe."
Anxiety is a normal emotion that helps us stay safe. By modeling healthy ways of coping and helping your daughter create distance from her fearful thoughts so she can determine whether they have genuine value, she will be better-equipped to be take charge of her Little Fear Guy, rather than letting him run the show!

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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.