Worried Sick: Dealing with Anxiety in Children

Calming Your Child

If you feel that anxiety is affecting her life to the point where she isn't making new friends, trying new activities, or developing like her peers, and she has difficulty sleeping, it makes sense to consult a mental-health professional. However, you can also try some of these techniques at home.

Help him distinguish between real and imagined fears. Point out, for instance, that if he's in the middle of the street and a car is coming, then he's right to worry (and get out of the street). "But you could explain that refusing to go to sleep because he's positive there's a giant monster hiding under his bed is a silly worry," says Dr. Trainor. Although you should respect his emotions, try to help him understand where his fear is coming from and what he's really afraid might happen. Then use concrete evidence to explain why his worry is groundless. Patti Steindl, of Memphis, did this when her daughter, Sarah, literally became afraid of her own shadow at age 2 and would run away whenever she saw it. She taught Sarah about shadows by having her touch them and showed her that she was the boss of her own shadow because it could only move when she did.

Believe that your child is capable. If you step in too quickly or let her avoid things that scare her, you're sending the message that she can't do what other kids do. "Instead, explain that feeling anxious is good because it means she's challenging herself and growing up," says Dr. Eisen. Of course, this means you'll also have to push your own level of discomfort as you watch her struggle a bit.

Take it one step at a time. Forcing a child into an anxiety-provoking situation, however, can backfire. Most experts believe in a gradual approach. If you want your child to be able to go on a playdate by himself, for example, stay for the whole playdate the first time, and then reduce the amount of time you linger at each subsequent playdate until he'll go solo. Steindl used this technique when Sarah was 5 and refused to go upstairs in their house alone. "At first, we had to walk up with her," she says. "Then we started going only partway up, then halfway, and then just a few steps." After several weeks, Sarah could go upstairs all by herself.

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