It is not unusual for anxious children to avoid or withdraw from new or unfamiliar experiences. There is often an assumption by the child and from others that they are less capable than other children. However, it’s important to not mistake an aversion to acquiring new skills to lacking the ability to do so.

What might be happening is that the child may feel unprepared to attempt a new activity or challenge independently. There can be a tendency to hold back or rely on others which prevents the child from gaining the opportunity to master a task, which then leads to more anxiety when presented with another similar situation in the future.

It is human nature to have some reservations about engaging in a task where we may not be successful, however, through experience, practice, and temporary discomfort we learn that setbacks are part of the journey, and that fear and anxiety are transient. Each time a child is faced with an opportunity to persevere despite a challenge, they build confidence and a sense of mastery. A child who avoids new or difficult things misses out on the opportunity to gain these important life skills.

While encouraging an anxious child to try things for themselves may feel counterintuitive, it’s important for children to practice being independent in a supportive environment. It’s natural to want to help a child who signals that they are in distress and need assistance, and it may also be faster and easier for an adult to step in to help them, but this is counterproductive to creating a child’s sense of accomplishment. Stepping in and finishing a task for a child may send the message to the child that they are not able to manage a task on their own, further fueling uncertainty and anxiety about their capabilities.

We want to set children up for success, and the process of promoting independence starts with small tasks. Below are a few tips to help get you started.

  1. Decide on 3 age-appropriate tasks for your child. Examples can be: setting the table, washing the dog, or folding their own laundry.
  • Walk through it with them. After you have decided on what 3 tasks are appropriate, walk your child through each task as they come up, especially if it’s something they have never tried before. Talking through the steps, showing and explaining the task sets them up to execute the task confidently. Then, let your child try it.
  • Show confidence in your child’s abilities. Anticipate that there will be some level of discomfort when your child is trying something for the first time. Part of promoting independence is tolerating this discomfort in your child before stepping in to help them. Even if the task doesn’t go swimmingly provide praise for trying and reinforce the idea that with practice they will be able to complete the task themselves eventually.
  • Build up slowly. Over time with repeated positive reinforcement and praise parents will find that the amount of help they need to provide their child will decrease. Countinue to remain encouraging and stay calm during the process. Acknowledge that sometimes tasks are diffiuclt at first, but with practice they will get easier.
  • Be specific with praise. Generic praise like “good job today” is difficult for a child to feel good about and internalize. Praise goes much further when it is specific and timely. For example, “when we went to the store today, I thought it was great how you walked up to the counter to ask for your free cookie.”  

Anxious children may seem less capable of doing things for themselves compared to non-anxious children. But to help them build confidence, they need to feel supported when trying to do things for themselves. Parents can help by increasing their child’s level of independence through encouragement, praise, rewards, and modeling the desired behavior themselves.

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