6 Tips for Parents to Help Children with Anxiety

Although children with special needs are often treated as a monolith by society at large, some may have additional emotional issues that require supplementary care.  Just like neurotypical children, children with developmental and intellectual differences can suffer from anxiety disorders.  By working to understand anxiety and its impact on behavior, caretakers can improve their children’s day-to-day experiences while minimizing stress for everyone.

Here are some quick tips on how to prevent excessive anxiety in your special needs child.

Learn how to recognize anxiety.

The physical symptoms of anxiety can be subtle or extreme depending on the situation or the child’s unique disposition.  Your child may feel like their heart is racing.  They might sweat, hyperventilate (feel like they can’t breathe), have constant nausea, lose their appetite, or be unable to sleep.  

In order to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety, children will try to avoid the situation they are scared of.  Anxiety starts when a child begins to catastrophize, or expect the worst even when the risk of disaster is low to impossible.  A child may try to prevent the worst from happening by refraining from the activity or object in question.

Have your child rate their anxiety level.

Once you recognize that your child feels anxious, ask them to rate their anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10: 10 being the highest/worst, 1 being the lowest/best.  Prompting your child will allow them to observe their anxiety from a neutral perspective.  The rating system can also help you decide the best course of action.

Wait until your child is calm to speak with them.

It is important to remember that anxiety is not a “logical” disorder.  Children will often find it difficult to be talked past their emotions in the middle of an anxiety or panic attack.  If your child is displaying signs of extreme distress, offer comfort, but do not start formal conversation until they are relatively calm.  Anxiety or panic attacks usually do not last longer than half an hour.  If your child is experiencing prolonged distress, seek additional help through a counselor or a doctor.

Help build your child’s self-confidence.

Anxiety often comes from a sense of inadequacy or unpreparedness: i.e. they won’t do a good job on the assignment, they can’t overcome their fear, they are a bad person for feeling sad when they should feel happy.  If your child has anxiety surrounding a specific activity or event, assure them that they are capable and worthy of love.  Set expectations for your child to meet even while anxious.  Maybe they can spend 10 minutes trying the assignment or activity before moving to something they enjoy.  In all cases, if your child is feeling anxious, assure them that their bad feelings will pass with time, practice, and patience.  We are defined as people not by how we feel, but by what we do.

Use relaxation exercises.

Research relaxation exercises like controlled breathing, meditation, body scans, and stretches.  Not every exercise will work in every situation: if your child is having a severe panic attack, they may not be able to calm down without medication or other intervention.  Build a ladder of techniques that you can climb up during any anxious episode.  For example, if your child is feeling a bit nervous, maybe they can climb to a lower rung and do a body scan.  If they are feeling physically ill, they can climb to a higher rung and consult with a counselor or take medication.

Give your child the tools they need.

With or without special needs, we all could use extra help.  If available to you, additional counseling is always a great option for children dealing with anxiety disorders.  The earlier therapy begins, the more tools your child will have in their toolkit as they move through life.  Medication can also be a useful tool when incorporated with psychological therapy.  Speak with your clinician to decide which options would work best for your child.

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