What do you do when your child backs out of a playdate the night before because he's too scared to go to his friend's house? As a parent, it's very tempting to call the other parent and cancel; but research shows that avoidance breeds more avoidance. By letting your child stay home, you would be telling him or her, "You can't handle it." Instead, try gradually building up to the playdate by setting smaller goals and praising each step along the way. For example, you might sit down with your child and outline a "bravery chart" with smaller steps leading to the ultimate goal of the playdate; he or she could start with a playdate in your home, then in the friend's home with you present, then a short one alone, etc.
When your child is crying hysterically and shaking, it's easy to get anxious, frustrated, angry, discouraged, embarrassed or all of the above. It's even easier to lose it when you share some of your child's anxieties (read: "maybe something bad will happen to him or her if I leave him or her there"). But in the face of uncertainty, kids look to their parents as guides, and they can be perceptive little individuals. Try to model calm and confidence through the tone and volume of your voice, your body language, and your facial expressions, even when you want to pull your hair out. Think of a few things that are relaxing to you (breathing, counting, using self-validating thoughts like, "this is just my anxiety, my child is ok," and imagining vacation scenes far, far away) and try them--repeatedly--until you find one that takes the edge off. When all else fails, faking it works too.
Refocus Attention on Approach (i.e., "Brave") Behavior
It's surprisingly easy to get stuck focusing on kids' anxious behaviors and reassuring them in relation to their fears. Yet reassurance tends to just reinforce anxiety. Instead, it's important to acknowledge the emotion and then refocus your attention and praise on brave behaviors or even small efforts toward brave behavior. For example, after acknowledging your child's anxiety, try to shift the emphasis by saying something like, "It sounds like you are feeling really afraid of going to Sam's house. What are two brave steps you could take to combat your fear?"
Seek Help if the Anxiety Takes Over
If your child's anxiety seems to be pervading one or more areas, including school, relationships, or extracurricular activities, and has begun to interfere with his or her functioning, you should get help for your child from a professional.
In the Bay Area, I am here to help children and teenagers who are struggling with anxiety. Please contact me to obtain professional help for your child or teenager.