Believe that your child is capable. If you step in too quickly or let her avoid things that scare her, you’re sending the message that she can’t do what other kids do. “Instead, explain that feeling anxious is good because it means she’s challenging herself and growing up,” says Dr. Eisen. Of course, this means you’ll also have to push your own level of discomfort as you watch her struggle a bit.
Take it one step at a time.
Forcing a child into an anxiety-provoking situation, however, can backfire. Most experts believe in a gradual approach. If you want your child to be able to go on a playdate by himself, for example, stay for the whole playdate the first time, and then reduce the amount of time you linger at each subsequent playdate until he’ll go solo. Steindl used this technique when Sarah was 5 and refused to go upstairs in their house alone. “At first, we had to walk up with her,” she says. “Then we started going only partway up, then halfway, and then just a few steps.” After several weeks, Sarah could go upstairs all by herself.
Once you’ve helped your child recognize what anxiety feels like and what triggers it, set goals and use incentives to help her reach them. “If she cries when you say it’s bedtime, start with that simple goal - no crying - and give her little prizes for it,” suggests Dr. Trainor. Five minutes without crying might earn a sticker, for instance, but half an hour could get her a new puzzle or a movie outing with you.
Lessening your child’s anxiety away from home is easier if you have allies. Carla Panciera’s daughter, Beatrice, stopped talking in class when she started kindergarten. “She was a chatterbox at home, but she wouldn’t say a word in front of the teacher,” says Panciera, of Rowley, Massachusetts. Panciera and the teachers came up with a plan to make class less stressful for her daughter. In first grade, Beatrice still wouldn’t read out loud, but she was able to read into her teacher’s ear. By second grade, she was participating more fully.
Encourage taking control.
“It’s important for your child to learn how to break his anxiety down into manageable pieces,” says Dr. Eisen. When I got Aidan to talk about his fears, I realized two things: The bus was simply too loud for him, and he was still having trouble separating. So I started driving him to school. During the first week of kindergarten, I walked him into his classroom and stayed until he got settled. Within a month he could go in alone. That year, this was enough of a feat for both of us. Before first grade, Aidan and I walked around the bus lot and met some of the drivers. When he told me he was afraid of getting on the wrong bus or getting sick while he was riding, we discussed how he could tell buses apart by the numbers on them, and what the driver would do if he got sick. Once school started, he was ready to ride the bus. Now that he’s older, Aidan is still an anxious child - he hates loud noises, and the first day of camp always gives him a stomachache - but he can recognize his anxiety and talk through it now. Most important, we both remember all of the new things he’s done that were scary at first but, to his surprise, turned out to be fun.