Don’t Fear the Fear

Anxiety is a normal emotion children can build skills to cope with.

Whether preparing for that first sleepover, studying for a big test, or applying to college, your children will encounter many potentially anxiety-provoking moments as they grow up. But because anxiety is a normal, though uncomfortable, part of the fight-or-flight response to perceived threats, people can develop a “fear of the fear”—avoiding situations that might create anxiety, says Bethany Teachman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia and director of the Program for Anxiety, Cognition and Treatment Lab. Learning to handle anxiety, however, helps your kids build resilience to face those situations “as potential challenges instead of threats,” says Teachman. So what can families do to help “anxiety-proof” their children?

Bethany Teachman

Model flexible thinking. When we’re worried, it’s easy to imagine only worst-case scenarios. Teachman says to encourage your kids to see other ways to think about the situation. Tell them how you reframed your own anxious thinking about trying out for the school play or facing that organic chemistry test.

Help your child learn how to deal with negative feelings. “We want people to realize the symptoms of anxiety are healthy and normal and will pass, so you don’t have to change your behavior,” says Teachman. “As soon as you realize you can tolerate anxiety, anxiety loses a lot of its power.”

Reduce avoidance behaviors. Help children face fears and engage in activities they find challenging—attending their first birthday party or preparing for a class presentation—rather than avoid them. “We want people to realize they can do things even when they are anxious,” says Teachman.

Break it down into steps. Practice that presentation in front of the mirror or the family dog. Try a sleepover at a grandparent’s house first. “The goal is to enter the situation and not avoid,” says Teachman. 

Be open about your own setbacks. Talk with your kids about how you handled your own failures and disappointments. “We want to model the idea of being resilient, and we don’t want to model the example of being perfect,” says Teachman. “It is important to be open about ‘Oh yeah, I had a really hard time in this history class and this is how I overcame it.’”

Celebrate even small successes. “The first time you go to a birthday party, even if it is with a parent, even if you stay for 10 minutes, that is a step forward,” says Teachman. “People need to be reinforced each time they take a step.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2018 issue.

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