By Kelly Ceglarz, LMFT, BCBA
The holidays tend to generate lots of excitement as we look forward to spending time with friends and family and enjoying a much-needed break from the obligations of work and school. For some families, this time of year can bring up some unpleasant feelings. And for children who experience anxiety, these feelings can intensify at this time of year as they are out of their normal routine and faced with new situations.
How can you help your children manage their anxious feelings during the holiday season?
1) Empathize and validate your child’s feelings:
- Start with empathizing and validating his feelings. For children, anxiety can feel big, scary, and confusing. It’s important that your child feels heard and understood rather than blamed.
2) Normalize your child’s anxiety:
- We all experience anxiety. This is just part of being human and it’s an important adaptive instinct. Talking to your child about anxiety by giving it a name, such as the “Worry Monster” or “Brain Bully” (or any other silly name that your child likes). This will help your child externalize the anxiety. Help your child understand that the anxiety isn’t who they are. Talk about anxiety as something outside of him/her – for example, “It sounds like the Worry Monster is telling you some scary things.” For older tweens and teens, identifying anxiety as “worry thoughts” is another way to externalize their anxiety – “It sounds like those worry thoughts are bugging you again.”
3) Face fears directly:
- When we experience anxiety, our instinct is a feeling of fight or flight, to fend off the anxious feelings or flee the situation. Commonly, children will try to avoid situations that trigger anxiety. Come up with a plan with your child of how to face situations that produce anxiety and talk about it before hand.
4) Relay your confidence in your child:
- Let your child know that you have confidence in his ability to face fears. This allows him to feel stronger and more capable when anxiety creeps up. Similarly, solicit your child’s input for how you can support her – for example, “I know this feels scary but I know you can do it. How can I help?” While you can’t do the hard work for your child, you can be her biggest cheerleader!
5) Be aware of your own reactions:
- Children are very tuned in to and influenced by parental emotions. While parenting a child with anxiety can be frustrating or overwhelming at times, remember that it isn’t their intention to make things difficult. Your child simply feels out of control and needs your support and love. If you notice feelings of frustration or anger, take a break and ask a friend or family member for support. Additionally, managing your own anxiety and worry will provide a model for your child for how to cope and respond to your child’s anxiety.
6) Integrate structure as best as you can:
- We all know this time of year can be quite hectic and difficult to keep up typical routines and schedules, and with all of your responsibilities, trying to find activities to occupy your child is one more thing to add to the list. Try to remind yourself that you’re doing your best! Then, aim to maintain SOME structure with your child during this time. This could be as simple as maintaining a consistent goodnight routine. Additionally, children do best when they have clear expectations – preview with your child what the daily schedule will look like each day so communication is clear and expectations are managed. This will help your child feel more prepared for some of those activities that are out of the ordinary.
If you feel you or your child need additional support in managing anxiety, you should reach out to a professional. Wellspring’s therapists are all highly trained in treating anxiety, allowing us to find a match that works best for you and your family.