Anxiety in children affects more than just your child; it’s a condition that can reach far beyond the individual, even causing distress to other members of your family. As a parent, you can become anxious that perhaps your parenting style is to blame for your child’s nervousness, and that anxiety can feed into your entire family dynamic. You may worry about how to help your child without causing any further undue anxiety. Siblings of nervous children often feel upset, concerned, and even confused about the nervous behavior that their brother or sister is exhibiting. As a result, everyone in your family can begin to feel tense and uneasy on a regular basis.

It’s important to work through this anxiety, not just for your child’s sake, but for the wellbeing of your family. By learning to cope with it together, as a family, you can remove the stigma of fear from the entire issue. In other words, rather than ignore the issue or attempting to work around it (the “elephant in the room” state of affairs), you can remove a lot of the fear and darkness surrounding your child’s nervousness by addressing it frankly and with a group effort. Doing so shows support, compassion, and a “we can do it!” attitude, all of which are great at boosting your children’s self-esteem. How wonderful it is for a child to know that her family can and will support her, no matter what issues she’s facing. Your other kids will take note, too, and know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of, especially when you all work together.

So how can you teach your child to cope with anxiety? How can you and the rest of your family show support and love as your child conquers her fears? First, it’s helpful to understand how nervousness affects your child both physically and mentally. Once you know how anxiety works as a physical and an emotional response, you can put plans in motion to deal with it together, as a family. We’ll give you some coping strategies so that you can teach your child how to relax, and even make it a group effort.

How Fear Affects Your Child

Let’s begin by examining the way that fear affects your child, in both body and in mind. Think back to a time when you felt a sudden rush of anxiety – for example, a near-miss that could have resulted in a car accident. In that split second, you felt an overwhelming rush of physical symptoms as the adrenaline and cortisol began flowing in your body. You probably felt your heart rate increase, your breathing became shallow and rapid, and you probably broke out in a sweat. In terms of your mental condition, you probably went on autopilot, thinking only of your own survival.

Your child feels these same symptoms when she is presented with a fearful situation. In fact, something as simple as riding the bus to school can trigger a fearful response in your child if she perceives it as a potentially threatening situation. The only difference between your reaction and your child’s is that your child cannot understand what is happening to her body and the physical symptoms can be so overpowering that they provoke fear as well. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that must be broken in order for your child to overcome her panic attacks.

In addition to being afraid of her own physical reaction to a fearful situation, it’s important to know that your child’s fight or flight response can become more rapid to trigger and more intense over time. This is because the fight or flight response creates a unique thought pattern in the brain through the formation of neural pathways. These pathways, which are a remnant of our caveman forbearers, are “shortcuts” wired into the brain to provoke a quicker response the next time we meet with a similar threat. In order to break this cycle and rewire these neural pathways, you will need to work with your child, teaching her how to consciously relax through a variety of techniques.

Making Relaxation a Family Affair

You can teach everyone in your family to handle stress effectively. Stress is, unfortunately, a fact of modern life, so being able to control your reactions to it is actually a valuable life skill. You can make stress reduction a part of life in your family by promoting the following activities:

  • Group meditation – even small children can learn to meditate through group-guided meditation. Select a simple guided relaxation exercise and walk your family through it. Doing this for a few minutes just once a day can significantly reduce everyone’s response to stress.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) – teach your children another stress reduction technique by guiding them through progressive muscle relaxation. By alternately tensing and releasing the muscle groups in the body, both kids and adults can increase oxygen in the bloodstream, relax tightened muscles, and reduce the amount of stress they are currently experiencing.
  • Yoga – the benefits of yoga in terms of stress reduction and overall health and wellbeing are profound. You can make yoga a fun group activity by sponsoring family yoga night once a week. Even toddlers will get a kick out of trying to do the bridge, downward dog, and the warrior pose.
  • Breathing exercises – you can also teach your child how to do diaphragmatic breathing, a technique in which you breathe in deeply from the diaphragm rather than the rib cage. There are simple exercises available online that the whole family can try. You can also have little ones balance a stuffed animal on their tummies and try to move the toy up and down using only their breath.
  • Talk to each other – perhaps no other technique is as valuable for stress reduction as encouraging your family to talk to each other. Give your children the safety net of being able to air their grievances and problems. Allow them to vent as often as they need – and be sure not just to hear what they are saying, but to really listen as well. By encouraging your child to talk and by listening intently to what they’re saying, you will keep the lines of communication open and be able to deal frankly with any fears your child may be experiencing.

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