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Help Your Children Manage Stress and Anxiety

Ask the Experts by Mary Beth Garvey, MSW, CSW

Q: There seems to be more and more pressure on kids today.  How can parents help kids to manage the anxiety that comes with the increasing demands on them?

A: Kids are putting tremendous pressure on themselves to excel.  Well-roundedness or moderate success is often no longer good enough for them.  As a parent, you can help your child learn how to identify and manage anxiety.

The first step is recognizing the body’s signals of distress.  Stress can be manifested as fatigue, or agitation. It can be somatic complaints, like headaches or stomachaches or it can be tuning out or shutting down.  Parents are in the best position to help kids recognize their patterns of emotions.

Once the anxiety is recognized, kids can begin to sort out what has caused the anxiety.  This can be a difficult process. Very often, they feel like it “just happened” or that it is not connected to anything.  But it is, and the more adept they are at identifying triggers, the better.  Different things trigger anxiety in different kids.  For some it is beginnings, for others its unpredictability. It can be lack of limits, or it can be performance.  Help your kids explore what their specific anxiety is about and they will be more capable of alleviating their discomfort.

No matter what the trigger, anxiety is a signal that you have to change the way you’re thinking about the task at hand.  Anxiety is usually accompanied by an endless circle of self-talk that says, “this can’t be done” or “this is impossible” over and over and over.  A parent can point out distorted thinking when they hear it and help kids identify manageable ways to accomplish the “impossible.”

Parents can also be helpful by assisting kids in anticipating difficulties, looking at performance historically, and identifying positive traits that will help kids accomplish their tasks.  My experience has been that the kids who are anxious often are very high performing kids. However, their expectations about future performances or ability to manage multiple demands are negatively distorted.  When they insist that they are not going to be able to manage something, I remind them that future success is best predicted by past performance. I review past successes.  Not that this magically snaps them out of their way of thinking about things, but it does begin to challenge their distorted thinking, which is what fuels their anxiety.

Anxiety can also be re-framed as a positive.  Anxiety can energize, focus, or motivate people.  Just the discomfort of it can help you facilitate change.  Talk with your kids about what they’re experiencing and how it can serve them. For example:

  • Is their anxiety telling them that they need to ask for help from someone?
  • Does it mean they need to prioritize or compartmentalize their tasks?
  • Does it mean they have to give up some of their perfectionism and just do the best they are capable of under the circumstances?
  • Does it mean they have to have a voice and stand up for themselves?

Finally, help your kids identify what helps them to self-soothe.  Is it exercise, meditation, quiet time or asking for support?  Is it talking things over with friends, creating alone time, or spirituality?  Help them to discover what works for them and demonstrate that self-care is an important thing to value.

Self-care is something we need to begin teaching our kids at a young age, perhaps best done by modeling it in our own daily lives. It is not selfishness or meeting one’s needs at the expense of others.  Self-care is about health: getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising. It also involves saying no and setting limits, having a voice even when it makes others uncomfortable, and pursuing activities about which we feel passionate. We are more focused, more connected, more self-aware and more successful in our tasks and our relationships if we practice taking care of ourselves.


Mary Beth Garvey, LMSW, is a Clinical Therapist who works with children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at 313.408.2180. Garvey is a member of The Family Center's Association of Professionals. 

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