By: Olivia Vallecillo
Parenting is one of the most demanding jobs there is. I often tell parents in coaching sessions that of the two jobs I have, the one I get paid for is far easier. Caring for another growing and maturing child is no small task, and it is even more challenging when you have a child who struggles with anxiety or is highly sensitive. The beauty in having a highly sensitive child is that they often grow into a very successful adult, and often gifted children are highly sensitive.
The key to parenting a highly sensitive or anxiety-prone child is building resilience and tolerance for discomfort. I describe to children in sessions that anxiety is like a loud train. It comes quickly, is very loud, and most strong emotions peak within 3-10 minutes. If you can withstand the noise for that short time, the feeling will decrease in intensity, the train will pass, and it will get tranquil again. Another analogy is a wave; it peaks and then subsides. I teach children to expect things like a rapid heartbeat, flushed cheeks, tension in their body, and shortness of breath when going into situations that often cause them anxiety. This way, children are better able to let the emotion come and go because they know it is coming.
Teaching children skills like mindfulness is another piece I often teach my child and adolescent clients. Children can use their five senses to move them out of the past or future, and into the present means really looking, listening, and sensing what is around them and noticing it closely.
Other pieces I teach to children and their parents are the developmental stages children go through and the tasks likely to cause the most anxiety. My eleven-year-old daughter is in a stage where the developmental task is to develop a sense of competence in her abilities. I encourage this by asking her to take risks that cause anxiety, expect failures and struggle, and ultimately affirm that she can handle challenging tasks. I also let her have a choice in day-to-day decisions and give her agency that has increased with age. The ability to practice choosing among multiple options and decision-making affirms children’s confidence, a crucial part of reductions in childhood anxiety. Finally, when children feel part of a bigger purpose and connected to others, they have less energy and time for worry. Connection means getting your child involved in helping others through volunteer work, clubs, or social activities that increase opportunities for taking other points of view, sharing, and teamwork.
In the long run, protecting children from discomfort is not preparing them well for life. While at the same time, giving children too much and not giving them tools to deal with strong emotions like anxiety is like sending your kid out to surf with no lessons, and they wipe out time after time. The goal is not to eliminate anxiety in our children. Anxiety is a natural, human emotion; the key is letting it come and go and return to a baseline of stability.