by Deanna Toner, PhD
Summer can be an exciting and challenging time of year. The end of the school year is often marked by big projects, final exams, field trips, and saying goodbye to teachers and peers. The transition from the familiar, daily routine can be stressful, and summer comes with many new opportunities and challenges, including summer camp, graduations, vacations, and family events which can sometimes feel overwhelming.
It is common for all children and teens to experience anxiety at times. Not every fear requires parents’ assistance. It can be helpful to think about whether a child’s fear is interfering with their daily life, preventing them from meaningfully engaging in the things that are important to them, and/or causing them significant distress. If your child is feeling anxious, there are some things you can do to help.
- Reduce avoidance. When we feel anxious, we try to avoid, or stay away, from the things that make us feel afraid. Anxiety is uncomfortable, and avoidance feels good in the short term. Over time, however, avoidance makes anxiety grow. Children avoid in many ways: refusing to go new places, procrastinating on assignments, asking to stay home from school, refusing to speak in public, avoiding germs, refusing to separate from a parent, etc. Parents of anxious children often unintentionally allow this avoidance because they want their child to feel better, but this can make it harder for their child to engage in activities in the future. To reduce avoidance, parents can encourage their child to approach, rather than avoid, the things they fear. Offering positive reinforcement, such as specific praise for being brave or a fun outing with parents, can also help children approach stressful situations.
- Provide a balanced statement of validation and confidence. Parents can validate their child’s emotions and express their confidence in their child’s ability to manage anxiety. Statements such as, “I know this is hard and I know you can do it,” and “That feels scary and I know you can handle it,” convey an acceptance of difficult emotions and a belief in the child’s ability to approach the anxiety-provoking situation.
- Reduce reassurance. When children feel anxious, it is common for them to ask questions to find out whether a situation is safe or okay. They may ask the same questions over and over again (e.g., “What if I don’t know anyone there?” “Are you going to pick me up?” “What if I get a bad grade?”). Parents often want to reduce their child’s anxiety by offering them a reassuring answer, but this can lead to more anxiety over time. Children may only feel safe in situations when they receive parents’ reassurance, and they may miss out on the opportunity to think of the answers for themselves. When a child asks for reassurance, instead of answering the question, parents can ask the child what they think the answer might be. For example, if a child asks “who will be there?” parents can ask, “who do you think will be there?” Parents can also aim to only answer a question once. For example, if a child repetitively asks a question about their day, parents can verbally answer once and then nonverbally redirect the child to a visual schedule for each additional question.
- Seek professional help. Some children and teens may need additional support to manage their anxiety. If your child is avoiding things that are important to them or experiencing significant distress, it may be time to find a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment for anxiety. Parents can talk with their child’s pediatrician for a referral or find a therapist on PsychologyToday.com.