It’s been a year since the new normal.

A year since shut downs, working from home, isolation, social distancing, seeing family only on FaceTime, school closures, cancelling playdates, Zoom school, COVID tests, sewing masks, hand sanitizing, and much, MUCH more changes.

My 3 year old has grown accustomed to the lifting his hands to me to sanitize before he does any type of transitioning from: house… to car… to daycare… to playground. He’s used to standing 6ft away from other children and family and stepping aside so others can pass at a “safe” distance. My almost one year old? She hasn’t known a world where strangers come to smile at her in her buggy. She sees more masked faces than ones cooing at her.

With the pandemic, it’s normal for the family to face more anxiety and fear during these uncertain times. And of course our young ones are feeling anxious too.

In fact, leading researcher on anxiety says that “One in five children will experience some kind of clinical-level anxiety by the time they reach adolescence”.


Some anxiety is good for us.

We are preprogramed biologically to have fear. We need anxiety to tell us when something doesn’t feel right. And young children are biologically sensing, empathetic, and highly intuitive human beings. It is a survival mechanism to absorb the vibe around them so they can sense danger and call for help if something feels off.

They can do this way earlier than they are able to cognitively understand what is happening around them. After all, stranger danger is the first clear form of anxiety your child faces at only around 6 months of age.

But we aren’t facing sabertooth tigers anymore and you’re leaving your child to get some Starbucks, not to face predators to collect berries. Yet, to our biological systems, the fear of you leaving still feels the same to our babies. Their fear system, while informative, can quickly overwhelm a young child if left unaddressed… or worse if addressed in the wrong way.


Fear can show up as behaviour issues.

Anxiety that young children feel from one part of life (the part that the pandemic changed dramatically) can manifest behaviourally somewhere else.

What do I mean?

Say they used to seeing their grandparents regularly but now only sees them on the phone, this change can cause anxiety to bubble up elsewhere like having more scary dreams at night or not wanting you to be in a different room as them. These are all normal ways children express anxiety.

How we address this fear matters.

As parents, it’s quite natural to want to protect our child from feeling anxious. Parents often want to preserve a childhood essence of innocence. After all, you have your whole life to worry and children should be worry free, right?

While well-intended, parents often use words and actions that they think helps the child’s anxiety when in fact it does the opposite. It comes across as dismissive or denying to the child. Some might say, “that’s nothing to worry about!” or “don’t worry about that”. They might add “Cheer up, think positively!” or “Let’s do something else. Do you want to play outside?” to try to distract them from their thoughts.

These actions has negative consequences. It can make the child feel more anxious because they feel uncertain of their own feelings. It can also make them loose trust in themselves or feel like they need to hide their anxiety from their parents. It results to them pushing down or pushing away their anxiety which only creates… you guessed it… MORE anxiety and more behaviour issues resulting from heighten anxiety!

So don’t get caught making the anxiety an even bigger challenge for your young ones. Here are 3 things you can do to help your child’s anxiety.

3 tips to help your child's anxiety mother sitting at computer desk in the background and a young daughter's back in foreground playing with her toy


1. Validate their thoughts and feelings

It’s 2 am and your child screams at the top of their lungs. You check in on them and they tell you that they don’t want to sleep because sleeping makes scary monsters appear.

What do you do?

You instinctively might say, “It’s a dream. It’s not real. There are no monsters. Don’t worry about it. Go back to sleep, sweetie.”

Parents tend to jump to problem solving mode and explaining why something is irrational, because in our adult brains, if we know it can’t happen, then no worries – right?

But wait a minute here. There is something real here – your child’s feelings and your child’s anxiety. It matters very little to your child that monsters don’t exist.

What you need to do here is to validate. To help your child’s anxiety, it’s crucial that they feel heard, understood, and respected.

Instead of comments that unintentionally dismiss your child’s really real feelings, try…

  • Acknowledgement statements like “I hear you are worried about monsters”.
  • Validation statements like “I bet monsters can be pretty scary”.


2. Remain open and curious

Once you validate your child’s anxiety is real, ask them to tell you more. This serves two purposes.

  • It helps them name it: My idol Fred Rogers said it best, “If it is mentionable, it is manageable”. We need to help our child name their feeling and connect it with their perception. Young children process by going over and over the scenario that caused them anxiety. That’s why it’s counterproductive and unhelpful to hurry them to move on from thinking about it.
  • It builds trust: When we ask questions like “Tell me more”, you are telling your child to trust you with their heavy emotions and to trust you with their vulnerability. If they can feel safe sharing their feelings with you, you can start helping them face the anxieties.


3. Guide them to take small-steps.

Once your child feels validated, understood, and able to name his feelings and thoughts around the initial anxiety, it’s time to help your child face their fears. This is important because yes, their feeling of anxiety and fear is real, but there is no real danger to them. You can respect your child’s fear without giving into it.

This means you don’t try to completely avoid the situation that causes the fear. Instead you provide as little intervention as possible while giving your child a chance to take small steps towards facing their fear.

Invite your child to think of ways they might face their fear and anxiety. You can try phrases like…

  • When I feel this way, I can ________
  • When I feel this way, I know that __________
  • When I feel this way, I am still safe.

Let’s put it all together.

Scenario 1 – Your child is scared of monsters in their dreams:

“You sound really worried about the monster. It must’ve been very scary, huh? What was scary about it? Oh, you were chased? I can see how that’s scary. When I am scared like that, my heart beats really quickly, and my body feels tingly – did that happen to you? That’s fear. Dreams feel real, yet they are like stories that we tell ourselves. Stories can feel so real that you feel the fear all over your body! But we know stories are make-pretend. So… what can we do? When I wake up from my scary dreams, I take deep breathes and remind myself that I am safe. Would you like to try that?”

Scenario 2 – Your child wants you in the same room as them always.

“I see you want me here right beside you. Does it worry you when I leave? It must feel uncomfortable not having me close by. When I walk away, it’s hard to know when I’ll be back right? Yeah, I get how that can be hard. Well, I want you to know two things: 1) when I leave, I will always come back and 2) when I leave, you are always safe. What would make it easier for you? How about we imagine a special string that connects you to me, always. You can’t see it, but if you miss me, you can tug on it by closing your hand like this, and you’ll know that I’ll be back soon and you’re safe because we’re still attached. Want to try that?”


For Very Young Children…

With younger children who aren’t capable of problem solving or even verbalizing yet, focus on the validation while still share your curiosity. The problem solving will need to come from you.

That might look like you offering to stay close by while they fall back asleep, or going through a familiar ritual for when you leave that ends with you moving on with confidence.

Your tone, presence, and calm validation will go along way to helping young babies with their anxiety.


Lastly – It’s all about YOU

Remember how I said children are sensing machines?

Children mirror their feelings from observing their parents. So one of the best ways to help your child’s anxiety is to help your own anxiety.

Times can be tough right now. Remember to give yourself some grace, validation, compassion, and understanding. The one thing you can change is giving yourself that support. Don’t be too hard on yourself and embrace the imperfection. Take it a moment at a time. Reflect, start again.

Your children benefit from your own self-love and self-compassion.


Check out other recent posts on Imperfect Parent

6 Steps to Setting Limits with your Toddler

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