Learning how to deal with anxiety can be stressful, especially if you're a little kid. The struggle at our house begins and ends with water. After a mishap last summer at the pool, our 6-year-old son refuses to put his head underwater. He doesn't even like having his hair rinsed in the bathtub. Summer is here, and I've been casually bringing up the idea of swim lessons, but he's not biting. The look of discomfort on his face at the mere suggestion is enough to make me drop the subject, but I also want to help him deal with his anxiety in a healthy way, so I went on a mission to find the best way to help my little guy. I spoke with Dr. Morgyn Beckman, psychiatry resident at the University of Illinois at Peoria, who has a few suggestions to help anxious children work through their fears.
Don't press the issue
If you are not familiar with how to deal with anxiety, it can be tempting to just force your child to face his fears, but it's best to let him do it at his own pace. Think of a time when you were forced to do something. Chances are you put it off for as long as possible and then hated every minute of it. If you slowly expose your child to his fear, he will be much more likely to participate in the process of combating it and eventually overcome it.
Take small steps
Dr. Beckman recommends slowly building up to the fear. For example, if swimming or putting his face underwater is just too overwhelming for your kid, start by washing his face in the shower or "paddling" around the bathtub. You can also make each step fun by turning it into a game, such as timing how long he can hold his breath out of water, then under the showerhead, then in the kiddie pool or tub, and so on until he's ready to go underwater at the big pool. Participate in the game along with your child to help show him it's safe and not scary.
Don't minimize your child's fears
Remember, just because something isn't frightening to you as an adult doesn't mean it can't be scary for a little kid. Try sharing a personal story with your child about how you had to face a fear and overcame it. Dr. Beckman says normalizing fear is an important step in overcoming it. The book "Let Me Bee" by Vanita Oelschlager and Kristin Blackwood can help kids relate too.
Let your child express his fear in his own voice—without interrupting! Sometimes the fear is not what we expect, such as a fear of flying bugs instead of a fear of bees, and if you jump to a conclusion, you may never find out its true nature. Dr. Beckman suggests: "Identify the thought, or cognition, behind the fear. For example, many children afraid of swimming think 'I'll die if I try to swim.' Once you know the thought, you can help your child change it."
Dr. Beckman's favorite calming technique is "tummy breathing." To start, have your child lie on his back and pretend there is something on his tummy or place a favorite stuffed animal on his belly. Ask him to breathe in and out with his tummy. This is called diaphragmatic breathing, and it helps your child slow his breathing and focus on something else. Once he has the hang of this breathing, have him do it while you're holding him in the pool or encourage him to use it on his own when he is feeling overwhelmed or scared. Also, use your child's imagination as a powerful tool. If he has to pretend scuba divers or fish are underwater with him, use it to take the focus away from the fear.
Celebrate small successes
It can be easy to set your eyes on the final goal and forget to celebrate along the way. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! Provide some positive feedback when each new step toward the fear is conquered, but try not to reward avoiding behaviors. If you rush in to save the day and comfort him every time he struggles, he will find comfort in your reaction and not his own success.
"Lastly, remember you don't have to do this all on your own," Dr. Beckman says. "There are lots of books out there for both parents and children to help with anxiety and phobias. Many therapists are willing to meet one or two times and discuss various options for helping your child overcome his or her fear."