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Anxiety

Giving Your Child the Recipe for Resilience

Stress, worry, and anxiety don't have to be part of their daily lives.

Key points

  • Children can learn how to be resilient in the face of challenges using four key ingredients for developing resilience.
  • The ingredients include having awareness for their thoughts and behaviors and a mindset that there is no failure, just opportunities for growth.
  • Parents are critical for the last two: adopting a lifestyle of approach, and giving their child security to know they are loved just as they are.

In the last 10 years, we have seen the rates of anxiety and depression increase in youth at an alarming rate. Decades of research have given us a lot of information on what works and what doesn’t, and it shouldn’t be kept a mystery; you deserve to know everything that the experts know. I know there are a lot of websites out there on “how to worry less” or “top tips for anxiety relief.” Some have just outright incorrect information. And while some may have useful science-based content, I’ve found it frustrating that they are often so general. So “byte-sized." I imagine these bulleted “tips” don’t feel very fulfilling to someone who is struggling and looking for help.

There are simple changes in how your child approaches new, uncomfortable, or challeng­ing situations that can absolutely lessen how stressed or down they feel. If you can share this understanding with your child, you will be giving them an invaluable gift—the gift of awareness and agency over their emotions. In fact, the earlier you share this with them, the easier it will be for them to develop habits that feed confi­dence, allowing them to live empowered. Stress, worry, and anxiety don't have to be part of their daily life. I’ll share everything I know so you and your child can become experts. My goal is to equip and empower. It is my hope that we will see strong founda­tions built in homes across the country, helping more children lead lives full of passion, confidence, and well-being.

The Time Is Now

The current lifetime prevalence rate of anxiety in children and adolescents in the U.S. is a whopping 32 percent. Based on a recent epidemiological study, more than 1 in 20 children in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder or depression. Eight out of 10 report excessive “stress” on a daily basis. From 2003 to 2011-2012, the rate of anxiety in children ages 6-17 increased from 5.4 percent to 8.4 percent.

After many years of research and academic writing, I have made it my mission to communicate to parents—and all adults working to support children and teens—every­thing I have learned. I want to take the mystery out of stress and anxiety management, so you can offer your children the greatest gift—the gift of resilience. The time is now. My recommendations are based on decades of clinical research with children and families across the country and around the world. It’s true; there’s much we still don’t know, but we do know a lot about what helps and what does not. We also know that parents are in a great position to learn strategies and create a lifestyle that helps their children develop skills to navigate stress and new challenges.

The Ingredients

Resilience is being equipped to approach life with confidence and the ability to respond adaptively in times of adversity. Developing an awareness of and compassion for our emotional and physiological experience, cultivating a mindset of growth and flexibility, and practicing prosocial behaviors and positive ways to problem-solve and approach challenges are the ingredients of resilience.

Developing Awareness and Compassion. The first and most important ingredient is to help your child understand the connection between their mind, body, feelings, and behaviors. You can help them become aware of their own patterns—the way their body responds to different emotions, which thoughts pop up in different situations, and which behaviors have become habits—and to observe them without judgment. Awareness will give them distance from the situation, enough to be able to think about how they would like to respond. Compassion about one's emotional and physiological experience takes away the fear and guilt surrounding them, creating enough of an opening to try something different.

Cultivating a Mindset of Growth and Flexibility. The next ingredient is to help them see how their thoughts and behaviors are influencing how they feel and what they are experiencing in their world. Having a mindset that there is no failure, or rejection, just opportunities to grow and learn, will equip them to be able to bounce back when they face a tough test, a betrayal from a friend, or any negative event. Over time they’ll become more automatic in viewing challenges as a problem to be solved and flexible enough to adapt and turn challenges into opportunities to learn and grow. They’ll know that they can choose their focus—what do I have, what can I do?—instead of what they may have lost.

Adopting a Lifestyle of Approach. This is perhaps the most crucial, yet most often skipped, ingredient. Doing the thing that has been avoided, or purposefully planning to approach challenges, is a key step in rewiring our brains, creating new connections, and weakening old ones. Without practicing the “new” or “chosen” behavior, your child’s brain won’t really “learn” anything new. For example, they can change how they’ve been thinking about a situation (“It’s OK if I make a mistake, everyone makes mistakes”), but if they don’t change the behavior that has been maintaining the worry (still not raising their hand in class), they’ll still experience the same “fight-or-flight” response and can fall back into the cycle of worry about failure and humiliation every time they are faced with a similar situation.

The Ultimate Gift: Security. Our job as parents is simple but not easy. We are to support, guide, appreciate and encourage in ways that will help them thrive. This is the greatest gift one can give, and a parent can offer it better than anyone else: the gift of security. Not in terms of safety from harm—sadly, we aren’t able to prevent or protect them from all harm—but security in knowing that you are there to support them. The gift of knowing you will always be there to help, comfort, trust, appreciate, and understand them unconditionally, exactly as they are.

The Recipe

In this blog, I will explain the key principles for creating long-term resilience and then provide guidance on applying the principles—walking you step-by-step through the FEAR plan. The FEAR plan is an acronym taught within the Coping Cat treatment program developed by Phil Kendall and colleagues that has been rigorously studied in children and adolescents and has been shown to be effective in helping manage mood and anxiety. Children walk themselves through the F-E-A-R steps, which are based on the key components of CBT, to reduce worry and anxiety and create a plan for approaching rather than avoiding uncertainty. For now, simply know that the FEAR acronym refers to steps kids can take to face fear, adversity, and self-doubt.

References

This post contains excerpts from: Khanna, M. & Kendall, P. C. (to be released 11/2021). The Resilience Recipe: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Fearless Kids in the Age of Anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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