A Parenting Guide to Handling Childhood Anxiety and Improving Self-Esteem

Superhero girlAs we gear up for the school year our children are going to face new challenges.

Growth and change can be exciting, but it can also lead to anxiety and fear for both our children and ourselves.

Successfully managing these anxieties can lead our children to develop healthy sense of self and self-esteem. However, if they get the message that they are incapable of managing their growing pains and anxieties they can be at risk for low self-esteem.

Let’s explore how to best support our children as they face challenges and how to manage the necessary anxieties that arise.

The growing pains are real

The first thing we must accept as we help our children navigate their inevitable process of growing up is that challenges will always  present themselves. It is healthy, normal and necessary for our kids to have social, emotional and physical growing pains. Just as we could not prevent our babies going “ooppps boom” falling down as they learned to walk, they will have struggles as they grow in all areas of their lives.  This is a given. It is what it is. And trying to cushion their growth process is not only impossible, it’s detrimental to their successful passage into adulthood.

By accepting challenges as normal and healthy, we can relieve some of our anxiety when our children come to us feeling overwhelmed and confused.

My child is anxious and struggles with self-esteem. Now what?

Whether your child has anxiety meltdowns, is snippy, or suffers in relative silence, as parents we can often be at a loss as to how to help our children through their growing pains and anxieties.

There are 3 approaches we can use with our kids depending on the situation and the severity of their anxiety.

1. Empathize. Help them to physically and emotionally calm down, utilize soothing coping skills and move on. Sometimes our child’s anxiety is due to a situation that is a one time thing (i.e. a dog barking at them at the park) or, objectively, not a really big deal (i.e. recess was inside instead of outside today due to rain). While these situations can feel BIG to our kids in the short term, these are issues that are part of everyone’s lives and learning to cope is important as they will confront these again and again.

Be sure to empathize with your child that this feels very uncomfortable and this is normal. Then help them to use coping skills to manage their uncomfortable feelings. The process of knowing how to cope will lead to your child feeling less anxious, more secure and improve their self-esteem.

However, if we parents make a big deal out of small potato issues, our kids get the message that the world is unsafe and unfair and risky. This leads to more anxiety and feelings that being safe is hard to achieve. This isn’t a healthy emotional state. Sometimes we do need to “suck it up” and move on. It helps us feel more in control and empowered.

2. Work with your child to problem solve and allow them to address the anxiety provoking issue independent of you. As our children get older, we need to model and teach them healthy problem solving and conflict resolution skills. They can’t learn these if we swoop in every time they feel uncomfortable or treated unfairly.

For example, your child is missing homework from math class and his grade reported on the school’s online grade system is a “D.” This makes both kids and parents very anxious. While the anxiety can be temporarily relieved by a parent calling the math teacher and guidance counselor and trying to sort out the issue, this is not a long term solution to the problem of missing homework and resulting low grades.

A growth-focused, self-esteem promoting approach would be to calmly sit down with your child and work together to brainstorm a solution to the problem at hand. Maybe the first step is talking to the math teacher about how to make up the homework. Then let your child take this step at school, independent of you. When you do this, you give your child the message that she is trustworthy and capable of solving her own problems.

How does this compare to the message you send if you try to solve the problem for her?

When we “rescue” our children from growing pains of increased independence our message to them is “You aren’t capable of handling this. You need mom/dad to do this for you or else something bad will happen.” This message is very indirect, but children pick up the vibe, especially if they see their peers handling these age-appropriate issues on their own. Feeling incapable leads to low self-esteem. Being encouraged and trusted to handle more independence leads to secure self-esteem.

3. Step in and take care of the problem. There are issues that come up with our children that do require parents to be immediately  actively involved. These involve any issue of physical or emotional abuse/harm, traumatic bullying, illness, etc. Another time you may step in is when you know that if you don’t, your child will meltdown/breakdown in a way that will be detrimental to them or others (i.e. at a playdate, in the mall, on an airplane).

Anxiety and Self-esteem FAQ

How do I know when to step in and when to let them solve things more independently?

Good question. This is a gray area that will depend on the specific situation and your child’s coping toolbox.

For example, if your child is getting a “D” in math and isn’t communicating with the teacher no matter how many times you support that step, you may want to set up a meeting with the teacher and attend with your child. As she gets more comfortable in these situations, give her more independence in managing her communication with teachers.

This can also be a good discussion to have with your child as you problem solve. Ask them, “How do you want me to be involved?” See what they say and follow their lead.

What if they try to manage an issue and they fail?

This is one of  parents’ biggest fears- “What if my child fails??”

Your child is going to fail. He failed at his first attempts at walking and spelling “Massachusetts.” He failed coloring in the lines when he was 2 years old and probably has fallen off her bike a few times. These are all failures.

Kids are neuropsychologically wired to fail, get up, brush themselves off, and try again.

It’s ADULTS who judge success and failure as “good” and “bad.”

When we get anxious about possible failure, our children follow our lead.

Instead of trying to control the outcome or setting your child up for guaranteed success, try to think and say, “Try it and see what happens. It may work. It may not. It’s an experiment. Go do it and come back and tell me how it goes. If it goes well—yay! If not, we’ll continue to problem solve and brainstorm a solution.”

Seeing our efforts as success/failure limits our ability to try new things and see where they go. Whether it’s asking a new friend to see a movie or asking a teacher for an extension on a paper, worrying about the outcome in the limited scope of two possible outcomes (success/failure) isn’t useful and limits our children’s growth and social development.

OK, but what if the outcome results in crying, screaming and/or big time anger or sadness?

Yes, that can happen. It’s a part of growing up, isn’t it? None of us has had a “sad-free” life. We can’t wrap our children in bubble wrap and deny them the opportunity to learn how to cope with sadness and anger.

Empathize, hold them through it, validate how much it hurts and then help them get up and try again when they are ready. Giving your child the message that you trust they can handle the tough stuff is a HUGE boost to their self-esteem. And they will be much more capable of handling difficult adult issues in the years to come.