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How Can I Help My Anxious Child?

The answer is going to surprise you.

Ask Lenore Anxious Child

So many parents ask, “How can I help my anxious child?” It’s not surprising, considering the statistics:

  • According to one study, nearly a third of adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder.
  • In a CDC survey, 32% of teens reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The CDC also notes that 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety.
  • In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a school district hired a social worker to help them deal with chronic absenteeism. They discovered that 8-10% of kids were missing school due to anxiety.

So how can parents help?

Give your anxious child more time to play.

Kids face a lot of pressure from adults at home and in school. Peer pressure is an issue too, and these days social media is always on. There’s a lot for kids to face on a daily basis. Kids also feed on parents’ fears and anxieties. Often an anxious child is an indicator of an anxious parent.

The biggest problem, though, is that we have taken away a natural depression and anxiety buster: free time for free play.

In play, the only pressure is to keep enjoying what you’re doing. If you’re playing a competitive game, that’s up to you. The score does not go on your permanent record. And if you’re playing with three balls instead of one or everyone has to play on tippy toes, just because it’s wacky, that’s up to you too. You’re free to be goofy, to concentrate on something other than school, to be with your friends, be creative, be someone other than solely a student or Instagram account.

Instead, many parents today feel the need to fill their kids’ time with planned, “meaningful” activities. Some kids are so over-scheduled, they never have a moment to themselves. Ask yourself: Does your anxious child have time to just… be?

We keep our kids closer than ever, meaning they rarely have the kind of free, unstructured, unsupervised time that serves as a pressure valve. If we could only give kids back a smidgen of that freedom, would they feel less anxious, even happier?

William Stixrud, author of The Self-Driven Child, makes a powerful statement: “To build self-control, we need to stop controlling children.” That doesn’t mean we stop instructing them or giving them boundaries. Only that we don’t assume the only safe child is a child constantly under the control of an adult.

Let your anxious child do one thing on their own.

So where do you start? The solution is so simple you’re going to laugh, but it’s this: Have your kids do one thing on their own that you did at their age that you haven’t allowed them to do till now. Maybe let them ride their bikes to a friend’s house, or play outside in the neighborhood, or get themselves to school.

This is the whole point of the Let Grow Project. Teachers who try it are seeing a drop in child anxiety in their classrooms. Our own survey of kids in grades K-6 who did a “Let Grow” activity found that more than 50% felt happier afterward. And the parents experienced their own drop in anxiety.

Why? Because when fear meets reality, reality wins. All the worries swirling around in our heads get shoved aside by pride and joy when our formerly anxious child bursts through the door, excited and elated. It feels great to be the wind beneath their wings, instead of weighing them down. That weight is anxiety.

Try it for yourself.

First, find a friend who is willing to do this seemingly radical, actually totally developmentally normal, activity with you. (If you’d like to find other Let Grow families in your neighborhood, join Let Grow and use our friend finder.) You and your friend give each other moral support, and it’s more fun for the kids, too. One reason kids don’t run around outside is because when they look out the window, they don’t see anyone to play with.

Next, explain the idea to your kids and ask what they’d like their activity to be. What’s something they’ve always wanted to try on their own? It’s okay to start small… maybe it’s as simple as climbing a tree without an anxious parent hovering nearby. Perhaps they want to go for a walk in the woods on their own, or camp out in the backyard. Need more ideas? Here’s a list.

Now, set a deadline for your anxious child to do that activity within one week. Better yet, meet up with your friend, pour a cup of coffee, and send the kids out together. When they return, celebrate their achievement. Then, make a plan to do it again. And again. Every time they do, they’ll feel less anxious and more confident. And you will too.

Don’t forget to give your anxious child plenty of time to just play. Get the free Let Them Play Kit to encourage unstructured play and independence.