Helping an Anxious Child


My older son has always been the cautious type. He’s never first to dive into a new situation, and he takes a while to warm up to new people. I’ve always just sort of chalked this up to “his way” and never pushed the issue, fearing I’d make him uncomfortable. In fact, I’ve been really careful to accommodate his personality as much as possible, making sure he has time to warm up to new people and only leaving him with family members when we went out.

Not even two and already flipping through "Consumer Reports". We should have known he wouldn't be a big risk-taker...
Not even two and already flipping through “Consumer Reports”…maybe he’s checking into our car safety ratings?

While I can fully appreciate being a shy child, as I was one myself, I have often wondered at what point my accommodating his behavior is in some ways enabling it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being socially cautious, but at the same time, he should know he’s okay with a trusted babysitter who isn’t a grandparent/aunt/uncle, and he will be fine if I’m the last parent at school pick up.

"You're SURE there are no sharks in that water? Because I'm not sure."
“You’re SURE there are no sharks in that water? Because I’m not sure.”

My husband and I recently decided that the time had come to find a babysitter…a “real” babysitter in the traditional sense, to me, meaning someone younger who would be really enthusiastic about coming over and playing with the boys for pay while we went out. I started babysitting at 14, and I was trustworthy, so why shouldn’t I trust a high schooler? Long story short, I worried for days that Nate would cry the ENTIRE time the sitter was here since he’d previously only stayed with our family members. I told him frequently that “Mommy would just be nearby, and I could be back home in 15 minutes if you need me.” Instead, after the fact, Nate told us “You know, you could have been gone longer; I wouldn’t have cared…” Apparently I am easily replaced by a cute 16 year old. Lesson learned, for both of us.

Similarly, I had my first “Oh no! I have a flat tire and can’t get to school by pick up time!” panic last week. Fortunately, my mom came to the rescue, dropped everything, and managed to get to preschool remarkably fast, but he was still the last one there, playing with the son of the “classroom parent helper” for that day. I called my mom and frantically asked “Was he sobbing?! Is he ok?” “He’s totally fine! He was talking to his friend and playing in the sandbox…” she responded. Huh. In fact, when I asked him how it was staying at school 20 minutes late, he said “It was…AWESOME.”

I recently came across this article that discusses the findings of a Mayo Clinic study about the effects of avoidance on childhood anxiety. In a nutshell, the study showed that children who avoided things that made them anxious were actually more anxious in the long run that kids who confronted their fears. According to lead author Dr. Stephen Whiteside, “…Kids who avoid fearful situations don’t have the opportunity to face their fears and don’t learn that their fears are manageable.” So, perhaps I was, in fact, enabling my son’s anxiety to some extent by making sure he was never put in situations that would make him uncomfortable (but were otherwise perfectly safe).

"Me? Shy? HA!"
“Me? Shy? HA!”

Kids are often more resilient than we, as parents, think they are. While I think it’s crucial for children to trust that their parents will always be there for them and will keep them safe, I have come to realize that there is value in letting them see how self-reliant they really are. Perhaps A. A. Milne said it best: “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

9 comments on “Helping an Anxious Child”

    1. So glad to hear this! 🙂 Isn’t it tough to know when it’s ok to push things just a bit and when to hold back? ugh!

    1. Thank you! I’ve found it hard to strike the balance of not pushing him too far while also teaching him that there isn’t always reason to fear things….

  1. Great post. You have some great insights. Kids are all different and fine. My daughter has always been very anxious and at 13 has needed some therapeutic help and it’s made a world of difference. Sounds like your son is a lucky and sweet boy.

    1. Thank you! 🙂 I’m glad she’s doing so well after therapy…it really can work wonders!!

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