I’m going to kick this off by stating the obvious: parenting is hard. Any child, any parent – it’s all hard.
When you struggle with anxiety, it can be really hard. And when you start to realize that your child is struggling with anxiety, too, it can be darn near impossible.
I never would have thought that a toddler could even experience anxiety, but after several months of seeing him struggle – screaming and clinging to my leg at daycare drop-off (after being at the same school for two years), wanting to sit outside of his friends’ birthday parties, completely shutting down if anyone tries to speak to him – I just had that mom-gut instinct that this was outside the boundaries of “normal.”
Since I battle anxiety myself, I felt like I was the least-equipped person on the planet to help him work through it. When he feels anxious, I feel anxious. I don’t just mean in that “I can’t stand to see my child struggle” kind of way. I mean that I literally feel his anxiety in my own body. It seeps out of him and absorbs into me; I instantly feel my heart rate speed up and get that desire to crawl out of my own skin. I’m sure the reverse is true for him as well – I’ve noticed that he’s more apt to be anxious whenever my own anxiety is high.
So you can imagine, when the two of us spend a full day together, we feed off each other’s stress, spiraling more and more out of control as the day progresses until we’re both completely fried and hanging on by a thread. By the time bedtime rolls around, one or both of us is in tears, plowing a war path through anything and anyone who dares interact with us.
After a few months of this cycle, I knew we needed to call in for backup. So, as ridiculous as it sounds, I started taking my 2.5-year-old to therapy.
While I highly recommend seeing a pediatric therapist yourself if your child is struggling, I can share a few of the tips we picked up from ours that have been helpful.
5 Tips for Dealing with an Anxious Child
- Let your toddler make as many choices as possible. Even choices that aren’t really choices.
“Do you want to get dressed before or after you go potty?”
“Which sock do you want to put on first?”
“Do you want to walk on the left side of the staircase or the right?”
“Do you want your breakfast in a bowl or on a plate?”
Let every single thing he does be an opportunity to exert control over his own life. Over time, with consistency, this will help build confidence.
- Bribe them. We had a “treasure box” with a bunch of little crafts and toys from the Target Dollar Spot and Paw Patrol fruit snack packs, and every time he was brave and conquered an anxiety-producing situation, he got to pick something from the box. We talked about the treasure box regularly, and the types of things he could do to earn something out of it: say “thank you” to the cashier at Target when she gives him a sticker, ask the waiter at the restaurant for milk, go to the gym child care center without crying, trying something new in gymnastics class, etc. It was amazing how quickly this worked – it combines positive reinforcement, redirecting his fear to excitement, and showing him that he’s capable of doing the things that were causing him angst.
- Talk about feelings. We take for granted being able to describe to someone what’s wrong and what we’re feeling. Even as adults, some of us aren’t great at it (guilty). So talk about feelings a lot. Describe what you’re feeling, ask what he’s feeling, and describe what you think he might be feeling. There’s a great book called “How I Feel” that’s wonderful for helping with this.
- Identify their coping skills. Each kid will have different coping skills that help calm them down, so it takes some trial and error to find what works. Some things that worked for my kid are: snuggling a stuffed animal super tight, stomping three times, tearing up paper, dancing, and super tight hugs.
- Give them a mantra. Anxiety is so hard to treat in a young kid, because so much of it happens inside their heads. So giving them a positive mantra they can repeat to themselves when they’re experiencing negative self-talk can help them combat it. For my son, it was “You are so brave.” I say this to over and over and over – probably 10 times a day. Now, when he’s going into a scary situation, he says, “I will be brave, mama!”
I’m happy to report that after about six months of therapy and consistency, my now-three-year-old is doing light years better. He walks into school happily in the mornings, and his teachers tell me how much he’s started coming out of his shell. He has fun at playdates and birthday parties, and he even orders his own food at restaurants sometimes.
As a mom with anxiety, I certainly won’t say we’ve “conquered” it, but I will say that our lives are just a little bit easier and a lot less screamy (most days).