Supporting an Anxious Child as an Anxious Parent

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

If you suffer from anxiety or you have periods where you feel anxious, you may feel that you are not in a good position to help your child.

This is not true.

Supporting an anxious child as a family member gives you advantages over a parent who has never had anxiety difficulties.

Being a Good Parent is Actually Better Than Being a Perfect Parent

Parents who try to be “superhuman” are not the best role models for children. They try to hide their flaws and mask difficult feelings. Children may feel they can’t show their feelings or admit that they find things difficult. They may feel they have failed if they do so. Read more about the importance of “good enough” rather than perfect parenting here.

Let’s take social anxiety, for example.

If a child thinks their parent is totally confident and relaxed in social situations they are more likely to feel under pressure to be the same. Anxious kids may feel less able to share their anxiety symptoms with parents if they think their parent cannot relate. When parents share information about their own anxiety, a child will feel less alone.

There is a caveat here.

Children need to feel safe and contained, so think about how you share information about your anxiety.

There is a phrase that goes something like: “share your scars, not your open wounds”. In other words, it’s more helpful to talk about past struggles and how you have overcome them.

It can be scary for a child to see a parent having a panic attack or in a super-anxious state. If you have panic attacks, whether diagnosed with panic disorder or not, try not to let your child witness these if you can. Ensure you seek help from a professional.

Spot the Signs of Anxiety Early

As you have first-hand experience you can spot anxious behaviors early. This means you are in a better position to help before a crisis point is reached. Early intervention could make a significant difference to your child’s life. Don’t underestimate the important role your experience plays.

Young children may start “acting out” in new situations, for example the first day of school or going to birthday parties. You will know to look beyond the behaviour. The behaviour may be caused by underlying anxiety about the new environment. Your child will feel heard and understood.

Anxiety can show up at any time in a child’s life for the first time. In early adulthood your child faces new demands which can feel overwhelming, where they had previously seemed to breeze through life’s challenges. New demands may include exams, social pressure, transitioning to adulthood, physical changes and thinking about their future.

The first step is to recognise childhood anxiety and consider the impact it is having on your child’s life.

It’s a good idea to share what you have noticed with your child, and discuss what will help them early on. You should then consider whether you need professional help (see below for resources).


Use “Comfort Zones” To Achieve a Balance

You have lived experience that you can share with your child. You can show true empathy for your child’s anxiety because you have been there yourself. This means that you are in a perfect position to judge what is too much for your child, or when your child should face their anxiety and move a little bit out of their comfort zone.

Anxiety makes us want to avoid the thing we are anxious about. Sometimes we need to listen and acknowledge a child is not quite ready to face whatever is making them anxious.

We can make anxiety worse by doing too much, too fast.

However, the best way to overcome fears for anxious children is through small steps that get you out of your comfort zone.

Staying inside the comfort zone is not a long-term solution as your child will not grow and develop resilience. The secret is not to go too far out of their comfort zone, but to increase each time.

Supporting an anxious child as an anxious parent: comfort zone islands

“Model” Your Positive Coping Strategies

Children need the adults around them to make them feel safe.

This is true even for teenagers. Their brains are not fully developed and they cannot yet fully manage big emotions for themselves. They need adults to help with soothing and calming their nervous system.

Use your experience of parental anxiety to help them with this.

For example, what positive strategies do you use to cope with the physical symptoms? Perhaps you like to do something with your hands, such as knitting or self-massage.

Perhaps pacing or fast walking works for you.

Slow, deep breathing may work for you as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) and signals you are safe.

If you are supporting an anxious child as an anxious parent, it’s vital that you are open about your anxiety and how it makes you feel.

However, young people shouldn’t see your anxiety when it is out of control. During those times, turn to another adult for support. Instead, let your child see the positive ways you cope with anxiety.

Show them how you face small anxiety-provoking situations every day, making you feel brave and resilient.

Show them the strategies you use to prevent your anxiety escalating – what are your go-to helpful ideas?

Use a systematic, step-by-step approach when you can, to help you stay grounded. For example, this article guides you through exactly how to support a child who is having a panic attack.

One powerful exercise that can help both adults and children with anxiety is called the circles of control.

In this exercise, you identify which areas of your life you feel in control of or somewhat in control of. You then plan one or two areas of action within your circles of control.

This is a brilliant way of helping you feel empowered and reduces anxiety, by helping you let go of things you cannot control.

In summary, children of anxious parents have the advantage of seeing real-life coping strategies in action!

Normalise Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal physical reaction. It keeps us alive when real danger is present. In some people however, there is a heightened reaction. Risk factors include:

  • Traumatic experience
  • Underlying brain differences (e.g. autism)
  • Environmental factors such as academic pressure

Parents of anxious children are uniquely placed to help them identify their physical symptoms, anxious thoughts and behaviours which may be keeping the anxiety going.

Often you will spot vicious cycles.

You can problem-solve with your child to interrupt these. For example, in social phobia/social anxiety older children may experience something like the following.

Supporting an anxious child as an anxious parent: identifying vicious cycles

The trigger thought is “I’m no good at conversations. This leads to avoidance of social situations. The anxiety will not improve whilst avoidance continues. To interrupt the vicious cycle a parent and child could discuss baby steps to take part in social situations in a managed way. For instance, your teenager might fund unstructured social meet-ups overwhelming, but they might be fine with a trip to the cinema. They only need to prepare for conversation at the beginning and end of the film, with a long break in the middle.

Outsmart Anxiety online parent course

Seek Help For Anxiety

Supporting an anxious child as an anxious parent yourself is not easy. You should also “model” seeking help from a professional if you feel anxiety is significantly impacting your life.

Your doctor will be able to tell you about local support services.

Consider evidence-based approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is recommended for generalised anxiety as well as specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic disorder. The following books are also recommended:

Overcoming Anxiety: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques by Helen Kennerley 

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Includes Free CD) by Mark Williams & Dr. Danny Penman (there is also a website associated with this book containing free resources).

When it comes to finding help for your child’s anxiety, a number of professionals may be involved in your child’s care depending on severity of anxiety. These include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Child & adolescent psychiatry
  • Psychotherapy

In the first instance ask your doctor to refer your child to a local service offering evidence-based treatment.

In the UK many NHS services are overwhelmed at the moment and your child may not be accepted for therapy unless their anxiety is very severe. This is the case even if your child has a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

If your child cannot be seen in the NHS or the waiting list is long, the good news is there are other options.

Firstly, you could seek support from an independent clinical psychologist through ACHiPPP, the Association for Child Psychologists in Private Practice.

Secondly, you could take my online course, Outsmart Anxiety.

Related Articles

Adult and Child Mental Health: Supporting Yourself and Your Child

34 Inspirational Quotes For Anxiety Sufferers

Does Therapy Help With Anxiety?

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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