Health / Mental well-being

Children, Anxiety, and Tips for Parents

Child sitting on stairs

Dr. Abbe Garcia is director of the Pediatric Anxiety Research Center (PARC) and clinical director of Bradley Hospital’s Intensive Program for OCD. Dr. Garcia is also an assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. We have adapted this article from one that Dr. Garcia wrote for the Lifespan Living newsletter.

Seeing your child stressed is very difficult for parents.  Parents often feel like they need to walk on eggshells to avoid triggering more stress. The difficulties for parents are compounded when they don’t know what will cause a child to feel more anxiety, so often they hold back, or simply try to reassure a child.

But when things don’t improve, frustration wins out and parents may respond with anger. Parents wish they could take away the pain and struggle but often know in their hearts that things will only get worse without addressing the problem.

As parents, you are in the best position to teach your child about anxiety. A parent’s reaction in a situation is like a fork in the road. It can help your child see that there is a way out, that things aren’t as scary as their anxious thoughts are making them feel. On the other hand, responding with your own fears to your child’s behavior can actually reinforce the child’s fears.

The more you learn about anxiety, the better you will understand your child. Knowing more about the condition will help you be more effective in keeping the fine balance between helping your child feel secure and helping him or her overcome anxiety.

Here are some tips for helping children with anxiety:

Set expectations
It’s important that an anxious child be expected to behave like any other child in terms of behavior and manners, such as how to act at parties or how to talk to adults. However, the pace may need to be slower to meet this goal, because for children with anxiety, big tasks can be overwhelming.

You can help your child by breaking down big tasks into smaller steps that are more easily accomplished. For instance, if a child is anxious about going to a party, the first step might be going to the party with your child. Agree to stay as long as your child is interacting with others. The next time stay for the first half-hour, then leave, with a plan to return later.

Act it out
You can help role-play or act out possible ways your child could handle a difficult situation that may be causing anxiety. Saying it out loud and talking about it in advance gives children more confidence, and they may be more likely to try the strategy themselves as a coping technique.

Build your child’s personal strength
It’s important to praise your child for facing challenges, trying something new or exhibiting brave behavior. Some children like big loud exuberant praise, while others like a quiet pat on the back. There is a lot you can do to help build your child’s competence. Search to find avenues where your child can show talents, like music, art, or sports. Also be sure your child has jobs around the house so that he or she is a contributing member of the family.

Allow for independent learning
While tempting, it is best not to take over or do things for your child. Although this might help your child feel better in the moment, the message you are sending is you don’t believe your child can do it. Your child may then start to think the same.

Try not to get caught continually reassuring your child that everything will be okay. Teach your child to answer his or her own questions. You can model how you think through and respond to your child’s questions.

Help your child to manage feelings
It is okay to let your child experience some anxiety. Children need to know that anxiety is not dangerous but is something to learn to cope with. You can let your child know all feelings are okay and it is all right to say what you feel.

Anxious children sometimes have a hard time expressing strong emotions like anger or sadness because they are afraid people will be angry with them.

It’s okay to take time for yourself even if your child wants to be with you at all times. You are modeling for your child that everyone needs some time to themselves.

Don’t relay your own fears
Try to keep your fears to yourself. When discussing a situation, present a positive or at least neutral description, as best you can. Let them know that it is safe to explore. Although it’s not helpful to laugh or minimize your child’s fear, humor can help one deal with the world. So, show your child how to laugh at life’s absurdities and mistakes.

Work together as parents
In two-parent households, it’s important for both partners to have an agreed-upon way of handling your child’s anxiety that you both feel comfortable with. It is very important that one parent not be too easy while the other pushes the child too much. This is very confusing for your child.

It is very important to set clear expectations and have limits and consequences for inappropriate behavior. Children can experience anxiety and other strong negative emotions and still behave appropriately. Parents who have reasonable expectations of their children’s behavior and  who set clear and consistent limits and consequences for behavior while providing plenty of love and acceptance have the most competent, self-confident, and happy children.

Like most things in life, learning anxiety management skills will be most successful when you work at it step by step, practice frequently, and celebrate successes.

Note from BCBSRI: BCBSRI covers a comprehensive list of mental health services and benefits to help you and your family. Find out more at If your child is in emotional crisis, you can also call Kids' Link RI, a 24/7 hotline, at 1-855-543-5465. This hotline is offered in collaboration with Gateway Healthcare, Lifespan, Hasbro Children's Hospital, and Bradley Hospital.