For as long as I can remember, whenever we go to a new place or meet new people, my son likes to hide behind me and my husband. When we first experienced this around age 1 or 2, we thought it was a phase that he would grow out of, but now he is 5 years old and this still happens. Generally, it can take up to 20 minutes for him to warm up to the situation, but it all depends on a variety of factors. Are there other kids there that he knows and is comfortable with? Are the activities that he is being asked to do ones that he is willing to do or has tried before? I can distinctly remember going to another kid’s birthday one time, and Austin spent almost the whole time eating his food, or maybe it was just a way to get out of having to play with other kids or do other activities. When we would go to the park, he would absolutely not want to slide down the slides, or swing on the swings, or do anything that you see other kids his age doing. Throughout the years, he always tended to have some strange habits, such as rubbing his ear, picking his nails, and currently twisting his shirt. I’ve noticed that he tends to do these when he is nervous, anxious or even excited. That’s Child anxiety for you.
When he was our only child, I didn’t know any different so was able to think that he was just shy and would grow out of his child anxiety. But as we’ve seen his younger sister grow up, she is much more daring and warms up much faster, which brought light to Austin’s anxieties much more clearly. To this day though, new situation or not, he gets anxious, nervous or shy. He still won’t ride slides if they are too big, or play as hard as the other kids.
Throughout the years, my husband and I have brought up the issue to multiple pediatricians, but they always said it was probably a phase and nothing really to worry about. He just generally has a shy personality and is something we have lived with for 5 years now. But from our experience, there are a few things that we’ve learned along the way in how to cope with some of his child anxiety struggles, which I wanted to share with you all here. Of course, by no means am I an expert on child anxiety or have we seriously consulted a doctor about this, but again, these are just things that I have found have worked for us in dealing with our son’s child anxiety.
- Always explain what is about to happen next. What I have learned is that the “unknown” can be a really scary thing for a child with anxiety. Routine has always been our best friend, so especially when you are going to a new place, heading to a friend’s party, or anything out of the ordinary, being able to explain what is about to happen next always helps calm some nerves. Also, arriving early to parties so that they have time to warm up to the location and surroundings has helped us as well so that he can have the most fun at a birthday party and not spend so much time sitting back hiding between us.
- Don’t avoid things because they make your child anxious. My husband and I have honestly gone back and forth on this one, but there have been times where we absolutely know our son probably won’t have fun at a certain outing, so we have just debated not going. Or if we are in a situation where he starts to cry or freak out about something, taking him away from the situation may make them feel better in the short run, but may in turn reinforce that child anxiety in the long run. We have found that creating mini goals that can lead up to the bigger goal have helped. So say my son doesn’t want to go on the slide at the park, well basically, each time you go to the park you can do something that gets them closer to that end goal. Like the first time just sit at the top of the slide, second time, go down the slide with them, third time hold their hand down the slide, and slowly work up to them being able to go down the slide themselves.
- Have a discussion, be a detective. Probably one of the hardest things to do, especially when they are in their moment of anxiety or freak out, is to really figure out the root of the issue. Generally, it doesn’t happen in the moment, but afterwards or dinner time or bedtime is when I like to sit down and discuss with Austin about his worries. Really trying to be the detective, putting yourself in their shoes, and talking to them about what is really making them anxious will help you out in future situations. I also find that talking to their teachers at school or others he interacts with can definitely help.
- Staying positive. I’ve found that staying positive and using positive and encouraging words can help. If I say something like “Are you nervous about going to school?”, that already sets off a negative tone. Instead, say something like “How are you feeling about going to school?”. I feel like this one is also pretty hard to do, but catching yourself and changing your tone can even help just a little bit. If you, as a parent, express fear and anxiety, your child will likely pick up on it too.
- Involve them in activities that will help build confidence. My worry with all of this child anxiety in his younger years, is that he will lack confidence as he grows older. I know that having confidence when he goes off to a new school to make friends or when trying new activities is very important for an individual’s growth. Participating in after school activities where they can make friends, or things that can build up their own skills to show off, will all help. But most importantly, doing things step by step and taking a slow pace so that they can slowly build that confidence is important. Like for example, Austin is learning to read right now, but sometimes he may pick up too hard of a book and get frustrated and anxious. So making sure he is reading at his proper level is important in building that confidence.
I will say though, that having child anxiety isn’t all a negative thing though, because I know my son is cautious and will take time before jumping into decisions. Worrying about things in fact does have a purpose, it can protect us from danger and everyone does face it, just to varying degrees.