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10 Tips for Parenting Anxious Kids 

How to support your child without enabling their anxiety

Clinical Expert: Grace Berman, LCSW

Many well-meaning parents try to protect anxious kids from their fears, but overprotecting can actually make anxiety worse. Here are pointers for helping kids cope with anxiety without reinforcing it.   

1. Don’t try to eliminate anxiety.

Do try to help a child manage it. The best way to help kids overcome anxiety is to help them learn to tolerate it as well as they can. Over time the anxiety will diminish.  

Anxiety can be a useful emotion, notes Grace Berman, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at the Child Mind Institute. For example, when we’re crossing the street and a car comes speeding toward us, anxiety is what gets us out of the way. For kids with anxiety disorders, it can be important to realize the difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety. “I’ll often use the metaphor of an overactive fire alarm — sometimes they go off when there actually isn’t a fire,” she explains. “Treatment is about recalibrating our anxiety alarms so that we’re listening to our anxiety in dangerous situations, and also learning when anxiety isn’t helpful and ways to manage this.” 

2. Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious.

Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it reinforces the anxiety over the long run. 

A lot of caring parents can think that helping children to avoid their fears is helpful, because we see the reduction in anxiety in the short term. But what this does is send the message to kids that they can’t handle this situation, that they need to continue to avoid it. “The message we want to send is that this is something we know they’re brave enough to handle, even if it feels scary,” Berman says.  

3. Express positive — but realistic — expectations.

Don’t promise a child that what they fear won’t happen — that you know they won’t fail the test — but do express confidence that they’ll be able to manage whatever happens. 

Anxiety is at its core about a difficultly tolerating uncertainty. “When we promise kids that their fear won’t happen, we’re giving them a false sense of certainty, which is not only potentially untrue, it also feeds the anxiety,” Berman adds. “Instead, we want to send the message that they can handle the situation, no matter what happens.” 

4. Respect their feelings, but don’t empower them.

Validating feelings doesn’t mean agreeing with them. So if a child is terrified about going to the doctor, do listen and be empathetic, but encourage them to feel that they can face their fears. 

Berman suggests saying: “I know you feel scared to go to the doctor, AND I know that you can handle this.” This validates their feeling of fear, but also inspires a sense of confidence in their ability to be brave.  

5. Don’t ask leading questions.

Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, but try not to ask leading questions — “Are you anxious about the big test?” Instead, ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about the science fair?” 

Open-ended questions help kids to reflect on their own emotional experience, which is an important part of managing anxiety. Anxiety often shows up in some specific situations but not others, so it’s important to not make assumptions about a child’s emotions, but instead let them tap into that understanding and share information about how they feel. 

6. Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.

Avoid suggesting, with your tone of voice or body language: “Maybe this is something that you should be afraid of.” 

Anxious kids often have anxious parents, Berman notes, because there are genetic and learned components of anxiety. If you can convey confidence in anxiety-provoking situations, both verbally and nonverbally, this will help your child to feel less anxious.  

7. Be encouraging.

Let your child know that you appreciate how hard they’re working, and remind them that the more they tolerate their anxiety, the more it will diminish. 

It can be really challenging for kids to face their fears, and any opportunity to encourage them and acknowledge their hard work will help in this process.  

8. Try to keep the anticipatory period short.

When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time is before we do it. So if a child is nervous about going to a doctor’s appointment, don’t discuss it until you need to. 

You may decide to tell them the night before or the morning of or even a few days before, depending on the child. But the goal is to not give them too much time to ruminate about this, while also not springing the appointment on them. “It can be helpful for kids to feel like they have a little preparation time,” Berman adds, “but not too much.”  

9. Think things through with the child.

Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if a fear came true — how would they handle it? For some kids, having a plan can reduce the uncertainty in a healthy, effective way. 

For example, if you have a child with separation anxiety who is worried about getting separated from you in a store, you can create a plan together ahead of time. You can highlight the low likelihood of getting separated, Berman suggests, and also say something like, “In this store, the employees wear green vests, so if we do get lost, all you have to do is find an adult wearing a green vest and ask them for help finding me.” This will help to reduce anxiety and also teach effective problem-solving skills.  

10. Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety.

Don’t pretend that you don’t experience stress and anxiety, but do let kids hear or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, and feeling good about getting through it. 

Kids learn by watching their parents, so any time you model coping well with anxiety is a helpful learning opportunity for them. For example, Berman suggests, if you’re on the train and running late and feeling stressed, you could say something like, “I’m feeling worried about making it to our appointment on time, so I’m going to take some slow deep breaths to help me calm down.” For older kids you might not narrate in the same way, but still engaging in this effective coping will model healthy ways of handling anxiety. 

This article was last reviewed or updated on August 3, 2022.