Anxiety is a normal and developmentally appropriate emotion in children which can even be helpful, e.g., motivating them to study for an upcoming test. But anxiety is truly problematic and becomes a disorder when it impairs basic functioning or causes serious, often physical distress. What should we do to help our children with this? A recent Wall Street Journal article, found here, offers ways for parents to help anxious children learn better ways of coping.

A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that 33% of children will have an anxiety disorder by age 18, and girls are more at risk. Surprisingly, the median age of onset of anxiety disorder is 11. Common disorders in children are separation anxiety (fear that something terrible will happen if they are away from their parents), social anxiety (fear of being embarrassed in front of peers which keeps them away from playdates and birthday parties), and generalized anxiety (free-floating worry about a variety of personal and global issues which are abated by constant reassurance).

Parents naturally want to comfort and protect their children, and may be inclined to let them skip whatever event is causing them discomfort. But experts suggest that this is the opposite of what they should do. Allowing anxious kids to avoid what they are afraid of can confirm for them that that these ordinary situations really are dangerous and suggest that they can’t cope. It can be a band-aid that helps children feel good for the moment but can set them up for greater future anxiety, as they lose opportunities to build skills and confidence. As Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland notes in the WSJ article, “Other kids are learning how to navigate those social situations, but the kids who are avoiding them are also lagging behind. That is going to make them even less comfortable in the future.”

So what’s a parent to do? Convincing a tearful or angry child that they have to go to a party they are dreading is tough and feels wrong. Resisting your child’s insistence that you stay home with them and leaving them a sobbing or sullen mess feels like you are scarring them for life. And it’s understandable when your child is overwhelmed with worry about terrorist attacks or stock market crashes or the cafeteria running out of his favorite snack–the world is a crazy place these days.

Experts suggest that parents should taking a step back and look at how they are “accommodating” their children’s anxieties. Do you always let them skip the party? Do you answer their 50 questions about today’s schedule patiently? Do you always order for them at the restaurant because they don’t want to talk directly to adults? Making a plan to limit the number of accommodations, and helping your child take baby steps towards building confidence could be helpful. For example, agree in advance that your child has to attend an upcoming party and stay for a certain time period, and work on how to cope with the feelings that will arise. Or rather than always ordering for your child in restaurants, have them start by looking at the waiter while you order, then ordering by pointing out what they want on the menu, working their way up to making the order themselves. Agree to answer only 10 questions (versus 50) about what could happen during the day as your child heads off to school. Acknowledging that the situation is scary, but putting limits on how much help you can give them, can help them with coping.

Parents should also focus on managing their own anxious thoughts about their children’s anxieties. Watching our children go through these emotions can trigger strong empathic feelings which can be unsettling for us as well. Hard to help them when we are battling our internal freak-outs. Also, staying consistent in how we react in these anxious moments (i,e, not giving in when your child is being particularly difficult) and staying positive about the possibility of progress can be helpful.

Finally, a few important things to note: 1) Don’t get bogged down with blame. Your child’s anxiety is not singularly tied to your parenting skills. In other words, this is not all your fault, and you alone can’t “fix” this for your child. 2) if your child is miserable and you are getting more and more frustrated, seeking professional help is a good idea. As more children grapple with these issues, experts are finding more ways to help.