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How parents can help children who are anxious

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Are there approaches or actions parents should avoid in dealing with an anxious child?

Ken Herman: If you're being the disciplinarian or if you're too invested in the homework getting done, then you lose the most important role for a parent to play. Ultimately, the child needs you as their parent, not as their tutor. They need you to love them no matter what. They need to cry and have you hold them and pat their head and say, "It's okay, honey; I know it's hard." Even if they fail a test, even if they can't do a single problem on that "stupid page," they need you to love them. They need to know it's okay, that you believe that they've made their best effort. And that tomorrow's another day, and we'll get up and try it again.

Bruce Hirsch: Avoiding catastrophic thinking is a big one, especially because we're often dealing with parents who are very anxious themselves. The thing I see repeatedly - and parents don't necessarily like me to address this issue, but I do - is kids getting a couple of poor grades in a highly pressured academic environment, and the parents saying, "If you fail this class, you will never get into a decent college and you will never get a decent job." And I think, whoa! I know it would be better if you passed this class, but one failure or even being retained, these are never the absolute end of the world. So I really try to put that kind of catastrophic thinking back into perspective.

If parents have found particular things that are helpful to them in dealing with anxiety - whether it's yoga, meditation, deep breathing, visualization - I think it's great for them to teach those to their kids, and to do them together. Exercise is really important in both anxiety and depression control. Families can go out bicycling or jogging together.

Ken Herman: There's way too much pressure on children. We expect them to go to college and become professionals - doctors and lawyers and such. It's not that a child with learning disabilities can't do that. But parents have to allow for a variety of post high school options.

Each child is an individual, and it's okay not to go to college. It's okay to go into employment or go to a trade school or do something else. It's also okay to go to college when you're 30 or whenever you have better self-discipline and are better organized. Unfortunately, even if the family adjusts its expectations, children go to school and they get the pressure from their peers, especially in high school: "What's your GPA?" "Where are you going to college?"

What are some ways that parents and teachers can cooperate in monitoring and addressing anxiety in kids with learning difficulties?

Bruce Hirsch: Teachers are actually very good at figuring this out because veteran teachers typically see lots of kids over many years. So, they have lots of points of comparison. I sometimes consult with teachers at The Frostig Center to get a better sense of how anxious a kid is. Parents have a much harder time of it, even if they're very sophisticated, because typically today's parents are having one, two, maybe three kids. So there's not a lot of comparison. Sometimes a parent's point of comparison is the self. And anxiety, like many psychological characteristics has a large inherited component to it. So, often parents will say: "This child reminds me of myself at this age. But I struggled alone with this, and I'd like my child to have some help."

Roberta Goldberg: Kindergarten teachers are great communicators. They usually send home information. Even if you think that your youngster is not doing too well in pre-reading and pre-math areas, for example, if you get the sad face when they're telling you what they learned about numbers and letters, I wouldn't jump to any conclusions until January of kindergarten year. I would resist any reaction or response that would give the child an indication that you're nervous that they're not getting it, or that you don't have confidence that they are going to get it. We really have to rely on the kindergarten teacher's wisdom and experience with seeing lots of young children starting down this path of learning to read.

Ken Herman: We know that learning difficulties are a lifelong issue. Coping with them is a marathon; if you start sprinting, you're not going to make it. For example, the daily grind of the homework and the daily fights about it do not have to happen. Children with learning disabilities are of at least average intelligence; they are going to learn. What I encourage a lot of parents to do is - every night when their child starts decompensating around the homework - to draw the line and write a note to the teacher that says, "We did what we could do; done." Because the child's' psychological and emotional well-being is the number one objective, and we can't lose sight of that. While I firmly believe that students with learning disabilities and attention disorders need to learn perseverance in the face of challenge, I also know that this lesson is learned over years and that we can only persist to the extent of our daily attentional and emotional capacity. Pushing beyond our limits only leads to anxiety and school burnout, among other problems.

Comments from readers

"This article was awesome. I have an 8 yr. old child who was diagnosed with having ADHD. She has overcome so many obstacles in the last 3 years and continues to improve. I am absolutley proud of her. I will admit that the frustration of wanting her to comprehend whats being taught, test grades, assessment tests and being successful in all her endeavors was enough to drive both of us mad. But the pivotal point for both of us was when we sat back and looked at all the progress she has made. It made her feel like...'hey...I can do this,' and it made me feel like...'its not so bad -relax and just breathe.'"
"My son is in the 9th grade we have struggled with his grades for 10 years or more. We do need some help. We sometimes think he just doesn't want to do the work. No child wants to fail in all of his classes. He does very well in Agriculture class and Tech Theater, which is building stage props. He tries to be a clown and also started hanging out with some seniors because they were nice to him. Note these seniors were all good kids My son knows them from being on the JV football team, They are the Varsity players. My son is very small. 15 years old and less than 100lbs. We saw an indo Dr. He is growing, but slowly. What she called a late bloomer. My child has to be told 5 or more times in each class to turn around and pay attn.I do not think he has no interest in school at all."