Children with anxiety don’t live in a bubble. The effects of their nervous anxiety can be felt by family members, friends, and even teachers. But perhaps no other area of a child’s life feels the impact more strongly than in her social life. While friends, family, and teachers can be supportive of a child who suffers from anxiety disorder, the problem can seem – from the child’s perspective anyway – insurmountable. Many children who suffer from anxiety cope by simply avoiding the very thing that triggers a nervous response. This can make anxiety disorder very isolating for children, just at that time in their development when socialization with peers can make such a difference in their lives.

Dr. Jim Chandler, MD, discussed social anxiety disorder and noted that children who suffer from it are typically considered loners. They may have a very close-knit circle of a few friends, or no friends at all. Half of the children he studied did not participate in after school activities. 10% of the children he studied flat-out refused to attend school.

Children who suffer from social anxiety disorder – a nervous fear of social situations, such as school – may also suffer from the following:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder – a fear of being separated from parents;
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder – nervousness that is generalized
  • Panic Disorder – a fight or flight response, triggered by a nervous situation;
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – a stress response triggered by a calamity;
  • Phobia – an intense, unrelenting fear of one particular thing, such as crowds or the dark.

These fears can be extremely overwhelming for children to try and cope with on their own. The isolation a child feels can also lead to other issues, such as depression. As a parent, you can take an active role in helping your child not only manage her anxiety, but overcome it. It’s a lesson that, once learned, can continue to benefit her for the rest of her life.

How Fear “Works”

Before we start the discussion of what techniques can help your child, it can make things clearer if you understand the impact that stress has on your child’s mind and body. If you have ever been in a near-miss auto accident, then you know how that adrenaline response kicks in instantly – your hands sweat, your heart rate accelerates, and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Your child has that same response to any perceived threat, even something as simple as riding the bus to school. But since most kids don’t understand the stress response, the physical symptoms of an adrenaline rush can make them feel even more frightened.

Our minds are set up to create what’s known as “neural pathways” through the brain. This is a kind of shortcut that was programmed into the brain in our caveman days, when a quick response to a stressor often meant the difference in terms of basic survival. Once the stress reaction takes place, a child’s brain “remembers” the trigger and its response, so that next time the response can happen even more quickly.

This means that the next time your child has to ride the bus, she may experience a panic attack even quicker and more intensely than she did the first time. In no time at all, this can lead to a vicious circle of ever-increasing anxiety attacks, with no help for relief. The only way to break the response is to help your child “re-wire” her brain so that she no longer feels threatened by the event that triggered the response, such as riding the bus.

Techniques for Coping with Stress

The most important thing you can do for your child is to listen. Make sure you understand the source of her fears. If a specific incident triggered the stress response, try to figure out exactly what happened. Knowing what caused the stress response can only help you to handle it better. You may also want to get other people involved: teachers, principals, and bus drivers can also help you to get to the root of your child’s anxiety and provide a support network in the school.

At home, you can help your child by teaching her several different ways to cope with the stress response. Giving her the tools to combat the overwhelming “fight or flight” feeling can be empowering, boosting her self-esteem. These techniques often fall under the umbrella of “cognitive behavioral therapy.” CBT is a kind of therapy that emphasizes how our thought process determines our behavior; altering your thoughts to a more positive track can bring about positive change.

So let’s look at which kinds of CBT techniques and plain old stress reduction techniques you can use to help your child:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing – by teaching your child to breathe deeply from her diaphragm, you can keep her from hyperventilating during a panic attack.
  • Visualization – when confronted with a difficult situation, a child can learn to visualize a neutral or positive image in its place.
  • Meditation – by learning how to meditate, a child will reduce the overall amount of stress in her life.
  • Yoga – often described as “meditation in motion,” yoga can help your child reduce stress and remain physically fit.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) – by alternately tensing and releasing muscle groups on command, your child can promote relaxation in her body.

A self-help program can help you identify which methods work best for your child’s stress level. These programs can provide you with both the tools and the support you need to help your child overcome her anxiety and go on to live a fulfilling life. You can implement the lessons you learn through the self-help program at home and engage the help of teachers and others in school, to help your child gain control of her stress response.

Many parents are afraid to confront their child’s anxiety and are worried that they did something wrong that caused their child’s nervousness. But be aware that you are not to blame. Most children experience anxiety at some point in their lives. If you give your child the tools she needs to overcome the stress response, she can triumph over fear and go on to live a happier and more fulfilled life.

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