Anxious Parenting Series Week 3: Strategies for Parenting Anxious Pre-Schoolers and Elementary Schoolers

“My child won’t go to school anymore - now what?”

Children with anxiety often have trouble in the school setting, regardless of how that anxiety is presenting. You may have a child with separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, or specific fears about the school environment. All three of these diagnoses can play out in a myriad of ways - but regardless of how the anxiety looks, it can leave you feeling helpless as a parent.

Anxiety often becomes more noticeable in elementary school, because of the environment.

There’s a huge switch from getting to stay at home or in a small daycare to having to attend school 5 days of the week.

Here’s week 3 of our 8 week series on anxiety and parenting - and here’s what’s coming up on the docket:

  1. The Building Blocks of Anxiety

  2. Managing Your Own Anxiety as a Parent

  3. Parenting Anxious Pre-Schoolers and Elementary Schoolers: Strategies and Suggestions

  4. Anxiety and Parenting a Child with Anger Management Issues (spoiler: it’s probably anxiety related as well!)

  5. Perfectionism and Parenting Your Highschooler

  6. Preparing Your Highschooler for College

  7. Out of the Nest: How to Parent Your Anxiety-Driven College Student

  8. Moving Forward and Next Steps

Step One: Identify and Empathize

As mentioned in last week’s lesson about managing your own anxiety as a parent, the first step to helping anxiety is to identify what’s going on. So with your pre-schooler or elementary schooler, you’ll want to help them figure out what is making them feel anxious. What’s that initial stressor?

“Hey sweetheart, I notice that when we get to the school doors it seems like you really don’t want to go in. Lots of different parts of school can be scary. Can you help me figure out what makes you want to stay with me instead of going into class?”

Some kids are able to identify what’s causing the anxiety spike, and others aren’t really able to put it into words. As a parent, you can help your child by noting which situations cause more anxiety than others, and that can help you to tease out what’s underneath their anxiety. Is it related to separating from you, or a peer? Is it about performance or doing well on a test, or is it more about being called out and having attention on them?

I strongly encourage parents not to label the anxiety as bad or silly.

Anxiety is a common emotion, and it’s an emotion that lets us know we don’t like what’s about to happen - which is pretty important! So instead of encouraging your kid to be a big boy, or to put her big girl pants on, or to grow up, or to stop being a baby, just tell them that you understand, and that it’s ok to be nervous.

It’s ok to be nervous. And, at the same time, we can be more in charge of that nervous feeling with step 2.

Step Two: Calm

Whether or not you or your child has identified the stressor, their body and brain is still experiencing anxiety, so it’s going to benefit from calming down.

We could create a huge list of relaxation strategies, and of course I’ve toyed around with the idea of offering a giant relaxation skills building curriculum, but i’m going to cut to the chase and give you my favorite, number one, easy peasy, never fails relaxation strategy.

Are you ready?

Ok.

Take a deep breath.

…And then take another.

And one more. In through your nose, out through your mouth.

Seriously, deep breathing is your groundbreaking relaxation strategy?

Yup! Because kids, and adults too, often forget about it.

Increasing your breathing rate, and experiencing shallow breathing, is usually your body’s first really noticeable clue for a stress response.

So by encouraging your child to take slow, deep breaths while modeling the same, you can quickly have a huge impact on the stress level.

It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s incredibly effective.

Step Three: Game Plan

After you’ve identified, empathized, and calmed down, you can help your elementary schooler with anxiety by coming up with a strategy for how to manage that anxiety for today. Maybe there are steps you can take to help ease them into the classroom, such as waiting by the door for twenty minutes where they can see you. Perhaps it would be helpful for you, your child, and the teacher to have a conversation about not calling on your child in class without giving them a head’s up first.

But sometimes, there’s not an easy solution to the problem at hand. And even if you solve this anxiety, there might be another one right around the corner.

If the anxiety keeps coming up, and the problems don’t seem solvable, it’s probably a good time to talk to an anxiety therapist.

And this can be part of your game plan, too.

Homework:

Last week I asked you:

  1. What’s my plan for proactively managing my own stress or anxiety?

  2. What is one thing I can tweak to better help shape my child’s behavior?

This week, let’s build on that:

  1. How can I share my personal anxiety management plan with my child, and use those skills to help them build their own plan?

  2. What seems to stress my child out the most, and what are some solutions to this one problem that we can figure out together?

Coming up next week we’ll be talking about anger and anxiety, which is legitimately my favorite thing to work with as a child therapist. I’ll see you next time.

Curious to hear more? Reach out to me at kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com. As a child anxiety specialist, I work with kids, teens, college students and parents to help manage their anxiety, stress, and anger. Compassionate Counseling St. Louis is located in Clayton, MO and works with families throughout Creve Couer, Ballwin, Town and Country, Brentwood, and Ladue. You can set up your first free consult on this very website, on our consultation page.