How to help your child with their anxiety

Did you know that psychologists see a difference between “fear” and “anxiety”? Fear is when we are scared of a real threat. This is a healthy response and can help us take actions that can save our lives. For example, if we see a poisonous spider and we jump out of the way, this can keep us safe.

In contrast, “anxiety” is the feeling of dread we get about something that we are worried about may happen in future, even though this is by no means certain. If we worry about getting an exam that is too hard and that we will therefore fail and never be able to get a job, that is “anxiety”. It is important to note that feeling anxious has never helped anyone. It does not help save our lives – to the contrary, it merely helps make our lives a misery.

Children go through natural developmental stages in which their anxiety levels change. We know that small babies do not seem to mind who cares for them, but that this all changes at around nine months of age when they have a strong preference for their usual caregiver and develop “separation anxiety” when they have to leave them. Children tend to worry about animals, insects and monsters, whereas teenagers are much more likely to worry about making a fool of themselves.

So, what can parents do to help their children be less anxious? The answer to this question is counter-intuitive. Most people believe that in order to help their children, they need to focus on the child and help the child feel better. Unfortunately, that often has the opposite effect. Children believe that their parents are strong and wise. If this strong and wise parent then worries about them, it means that there must be something seriously wrong with them. They, therefore, worry more and become more anxious. This is a vicious cycle.

The best thing to do with anxious children is to first calm yourself. It is impossible to help someone who is anxious if we are panicky ourselves. I will repeat that, as I have seen too many parents attempt the impossible. You cannot help your anxious child if you are anxious yourself. If you are anxious, please get help. You can meditate, read self-help books, get exercise, do yoga, speak to friends or talk to your GP – but don’t just let it fester, as it will make your child more anxious.

Once you are able to calm yourself, you can attempt to help your child. The message they need to hear is: “You have got what it takes. You can do this”. They then need to be allowed to try and they need to be allowed to fail. If we overprotect our children, they grow up believing that they are fragile and need mollycoddling. This is why helicopter-parenting leads to the “snowflake” generation.

In summary, tell your child that you have confidence in them, that is fine to fail and that it is all about getting up and trying again. They don’t need to be perfect and neither do you. Go on, give it a try, you have got what it takes!

– Dr Annie Swanepoel, CAMHS Clinical Director and Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist, Potters Bar Clinic


Potters Bar Clinic offers CAMHS Tier 4 low secure services for young people aged 13 to 18 with a wide range of disorders and complex needs. Our aim is to deliver, treat and empower each young person to live a safe and independent life and reach their individual potential.