Coping with Anxiety: the power and message of a parent’s response

My child experiences anxiety. Unfortunately, anxiety is often one of the tag-along companions on the journey of a child on the Autism spectrum, along with attentional issues (ADHD), sensory issues, tic disorders, and speech and language challenges, to name a few.

Today H was participating with a group of students and teachers in Art and Science activities organized by his school at a local wildlife reserve. He participated in this 8-week program last year as well, and it has been a good opportunity for him to socialize with other children and have hands-on learning experiences.

Today however, he was particularly anxious and was also quite obviously being affected by seasonal allergies. His skin was itchy, and his nose running (in spite of an additional anticipatory dose of allergy medication), and he wanted to bolt. In fact H employed his stealth technology (avoidance strategy) early in the session and Craig had to track him down and ease him back into the group.  Craig knew that the allergy medication would soon take effect, so then as a parent, it fell to him to figure out how to deal with this boy of ours. Clearly the combination of the anxiety and the allergies had him at the threshold for a sensory overload.

From a parent’s perspective it would be easy to understand that the obvious solution would be to remove the child from the situation. The excuses were two-fold, anxiety and allergies, and the child was both physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Additionally, it can be embarrassing and uncomfortable to have a child acting out and wandering off and potentially ready to go into meltdown mode. As a parent it is stressful to feel that you, your parenting, or your child are being judged by others.

At this point… there are two things to question and consider about the messages we are giving our children.

The first message is about resiliency and the ability to handle discomfort. I want my child to have the skills to work his way through situations that are uncomfortable for him. There are so many times that each of us experience discomfort and if H is given the message that he does not have to work through discomfort – just avoid it – then his world will be very narrow indeed. He will miss out on so many wonderful opportunities.

The second message is about our faith in him to handle his anxiety. He knows we are there to support him with this – but if we simply remove him from the stressful situation to relieve his anxious feelings, then, in essence, we are telling him, “Yes, we see that this is too much for you to handle.” We would unintentionally be reinforcing the anxiety with this message, and the likelihood is that the next time a similar situation arose he would be more anxious. H might also read our message as: “Aha! I was right to be anxious- See, my parents are worried as well!

So… if giving in to the anxiety makes it stronger… how can we support a child and give them strategies to work through the experience successfully? Here are a few things that have worked quite well for us:

Share your self-talk with your child. Audible self-talk (or thinking out loud) assists the child in understanding and sharing your thinking and processing. It is good for modeling problem solving and also sharing skills of resiliency. “I am a little bit uncomfortable with this- but I think I have the skills to handle it.” or  “Whoops… that didn’t work out like I expected- what can we do instead? We need a plan B.”

When possible give advance warning for changes in plans or upcoming transitions and do so with a matter-of-fact, upbeat, I-can-handle-it tone. “I guess this is time for a Plan B” (I have observed that when we are anxious about our child’s reaction we sometimes use a tentative, comforting, or apologetic tone, which might not be helpful if it indicates to the child that there is a good reason to feel anxiety.)

Use calming strategies that have been practiced in advance. Calming strategies vary for each individual: deep breaths, chewing gum, music on an iPod, and the Incredible 5 Point Scale, are some of the strategies that work for H.

Explore the source of anxiety to find out if the child can see any benefits to leaving those feelings behind. Perhaps the benefits outweigh the discomfort, perhaps the anxiety is attached to a past experience – but the situation has changed? Find out about what worries them and what they might be wondering about. In my experience this is best done when the child is not anxious.

Accept the child’s anxiety and validate it as a feeling. Feelings of anxiety can be very strong and it is important that the child does not feel we think they are silly. Anxiety is a real feeling, whether or not others see it as rational.

Be patient. The child might make it through a portion of an event- and it is important to celebrate the effort. If the situation does look like it is becoming too much – try to say something positive and then be done the activity for that day. “Wow, you did really well with that. I know you were feeling a bit worried or anxious, but you really tried______ and _____ and that was a new thing for you. Good job! We’ll try this again next time- but we are done for today.”

Distract with plans for afterward, or give an activity to do whilst participating. Today H was given a camera and asked to document a tree planting activity. The lens of the camera gave him something to be behind and something else to focus on, rather than focusing on his anxiety about trying something new in a social situation.

As a parent remember: Anxiety is a feeling – avoidance is a behaviour, just like anger is a feeling and fighting is a behaviour. There are some feelings that we need to learn to handle with behaviour that is useful and doesn’t make the problem worse.

So for today at least… H made huge gains with being in charge of his anxiety. He stayed with the group and he found he had a really fun time participating in the activities. He planted a tree at the nature reserve, a little Saskatoon Berry shrub, and he learned about some of the trees native to our area. It even stopped raining for a couple of hours and the sun came out.

Craig was so proud of H and the way he handled himself – and I suspect that Craig was feeling pretty positive about working through his own feelings of discomfort about parenting an anxious child and navigating the looks and judgments of others. I know I have felt this way on many occasions.

Yup – it was only one day, and next time it may not go as well… but like other parents, we work to handle what comes at us in the moment as best we can.


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2011)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
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8 Responses to Coping with Anxiety: the power and message of a parent’s response

  1. Pingback: Coping with Anxiety: the power and message of a parent’s response (via Thirty Days of Autism) | Thirty Days of Autism

  2. Pingback: John Elder Robison, SPD, and a Practical Sensory Diet | Thirty Days of Autism

  3. CK says:

    Love your post! Very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing. In sharing we can learn so much.
    The Nonverbals send H & his family Christ Love & ours.


  4. seeking316 says:

    great post! This was helpful because we are just beginning to have to deal and understand the anxiety our son is experiencing. In fact, there were times we didn’t even realize it was anxiety until recently. Thank you for sharing!


  5. Great post. You captured well the delicate dance that plays out when a person is anxious/agitated and they need our understanding, acknowledgement and encouragement to make it through in a way that the next time is a little easier. Skill-building and resiliency all in one.


  6. ProfMomEsq says:

    This post contains some terrific suggestions. My daughter struggles with anxiety, especially around school, so I appreciate your thoughts about how to help her work through and with that. Thank you.


  7. Angel says:

    This is a perfect resource! Excellent!


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