My oldest son has been experiencing this very issue, and it makes my heart positively ache when I see him get visibly worried or upset about something. Here are a few tips that have helped him (and me) cope with the situation.
First of all, pay attention to any recent stresses in his life. Starting at a new school, the birth of a baby in the family, or the passing of a close relative can all be triggers for anxiety. If you think something’s up, talk to your child on his level about what’s been going on. Recently, we found out that my son needed to get his tonsils removed. The anxiety of the upcoming surgery was a lot for him to handle, and he started getting nervous about other things too.
When dealing with your child’s anxiety on a daily basis, resist the urge to tell him not to worry when he is clearly communicating with you that he’s worried. Dismissing his feelings will only make it worse. Try a tip my sister taught me about “active listening” — that’s when you look right at your child when he’s talking to you, acknowledge what he is saying and repeat it back to him in your own words, such as, “It sounds like that doctor’s appointment you have coming up next week is really making you feel nervous.”
Make sure that you are really acknowledging his feelings or fears without belittling him, but try not to amplify the fears too. For example, if your child is nervous about his part in the school play, you don’t need to make his fear worse by talking about all the people who will be there watching him, or keep asking him on the day of the play whether he’s feeling nervous. You want to send the message that you know he is scared, and that’s OK, but you will help him get through this.
Also, don’t avoid situations just because they make your child anxious. My son was (and still is sometimes) scared of any person dressed up in a costume where you can't see their face — you know the ones, lurking around every corner at Disney World. (That's not my son in the photo to the right, by the way.) Well, I used to avoid them entirely, steering clear on entire exhibits at the zoo because they came complete with a man in a tiger costume. Then, one day at the nature center, I saw a giant turtle approaching us. Instead of running the other way and distracting him with some fish, I told my son that a man was dressed in a turtle suit at the next exhibit and though it might make him nervous, I will be there the whole time we walk by him, holding his hand. We walked right by the turtle together, waved (shaking his hand might have been too much for him at the time), and the moment we passed, he turned to me and said, “Mommy, that turtle wasn’t scary at all!” Great moment for me, and an even better one for him.
You can also try talking through the scenarios your child might be nervous about. For example, if he’s nervous about his first day of first grade, role play with him about what things might happen when he gets there and what he might do to cope with, say, meeting a new friend or finding his desk.
Each small success will help your child cope with his anxiety a little bit better. Remember that the goal is to help him manage it, not quash it entirely. For more tips on coping with your child’s individual situation, you can also consult your child’s pediatrician or school psychologist.
Related anxiety stories on MNN:
- Even mild anxiety raises risk for cardiovascular disease
- 7 totally organic ways to beat stress
- Why some kids think the bogeyman is real