3 Steps to Help Your Anxious Child

You child has this fear that you think they should be able to get over, but nothing has worked. Here’s how to help an anxious child.

These tips are lifesavers at how to help calm an anxious child! When your kid is stressed and scared, we parents often have no clue how to help. Whether you child has a legit or irrational fear, this parenting advice will help you take the steps to tame it.

In my house, bath time is what parenting nightmares are made of.  A typical bath time looks like this:

My 4-year-old son stands in the bathtub.

He refuses to sit down until I turn the water off because it “hurts his ears.”

After the water reaches an acceptable level, I turn off the faucet and he sits.

I brace myself.

“OK…Let’s wet your hair.”

“No Mommy, I don’t want my hair wet.”

“It’s OK,” I reassure him as I cup a handful of bathwater and gently pour it over his head.

“OW! It’s getting in my eyes!! OW!! OW!!”

That’s when I go all in, trying to get his hair wet as fast as possible.

He’s crying now and screaming at me, “YOU’RE TERRIBLE AT GIVING BATHS!!!   AHHHH!!!”

Oh my gosh, how does this even happen? My kid is completely scared of any sort of water getting in his eyes, ears, up his nose or anywhere on his face.

How do you help an anxious child with these irrational fears?

Sometimes, it seems impossible to solve kids’ stress

Because we are so stressed ourselves.

In those moments when my son screams at me, I lose all capability for rational thought. My heart rate quickens and then I rush through whatever is causing him to panic.

My first inclination is to ignore his anxious feelings because I just want it over with.

But, ignoring these feelings doesn’t solve this bath time stress.

Nor, does it help with any of the other situations that cause him to flip his gourd.

Just like adults, kid anxiety is usually caused by SOMETHING.

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It’s figuring this something out that tends to be the issue. So first,

We need to remember to HALT

About 80% of anxiety is caused by one of four things.

(And this works with me too when I want to eat my entire kitchen and I have no clue why)

It’s the simple acronym H.A.L.T. which helps your remember to check if your child is: Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

These four states affect how we react to situations and are also easily solved.

If your child is hungry – give him a quick snack.

Angry? Let him talk out his feelings with you,

Lonely? Spend a few minutes with him.

Tired? Put him to bed a bit earlier to get extra sleep.

And if you’ve tried all of these and the anxiety keeps appearing, it’s time to…

Next, jog your own memory

Phew… deep breath.

Ok, let’s dig into this.

Is there any reason that your child would be scared of this situation?

With bath time, I thought back to when my son changed from loving baths to hating them.

Once upon a time, he enjoyed bath time.

FYI: This post contains affiliate links to products I love and recommend.  It costs you nothing extra if you purchase through my link, but I may get a small commission.

In fact, we had a bath chemistry set that allowed him to change the water different colors as well as wear “lab goggles.”

Like all toys though, the color tablets ran out, the goggles snapped and we never replaced it.

He seemed fine with it though.

Until, one night when my mom was visiting.

She gave him a bath and as she poured the water over his head, he started screaming.

Shrieking so loud and long – which honestly is pretty typical for my son – that he refused to let Mimi give him a bath EVER again.

What happened in that bath?

After talking to my mom, I learned that he started his screamfest as soon as water hit his eyes.

Ok… I have something to go on. Now, let’s solve it.

Help your child tell his story

According to the authors of The Whole-Brain Child, our brain has a very interesting way of storing memories.

The brain doesn’t connect all events to each other, but rather stores them as little puzzle pieces all throughout that we need to fit together.

In fact, we’re not even aware that some of these stored puzzle pieces exist and may be affecting our behavior.

They’re called implicit memories –  the memories hiding from us and preventing us from making logical sense of the event.

Since they’re hiding, they cause irrational fears and prevent us and our kids from doing stuff that’s really not so bad.

Our job as parents is to help our kids turn these implicit memories into explicit memories.

Here’s how:

Help your kid tell the story of what happened.

This is harder to do than it sounds.  Kids often don’t remember events exactly how they happened.  You’ll be filling in the gaps in their memories from what you know.

The conversation is pretty straight-forward

The next morning, my son lay in bed with me as we both struggled to get up.

Me: Hey, I was thinking about how you said I give terrible baths. I know you don’t like baths.
Son: NO. I don’t like them.
Me: Did you know that our brain (And yes, I do talk to my four-year-old about the brain) sometimes stores our memories in ways we can’t find them… but those memories still make us feel stuff like fear and anger?
Son: (Silence)
Me: So I was thinking about that time Mimi gave you the bath you didn’t like. Do you remember that?
Son: Yes. That’s was a bad bath.
Me: So she poured water over your head and then what happened?
Son: It got in my eyes.
Me: And I bet it hurt a lot, right?
Son: Ya, I cried.
Me: Do you think you may be remembering that bath and now you’re scared that water will get in your eyes again?
Son: (thinking) Ya..you know…. I need new goggles.

Light bulb!! Of course! It’s the goggles that gave us awesome bathtimes before. When they broke, it all went downhill.

Me: Do you think if we got you another pair of goggles you would like bath time again?
Son: Ya, then water won’t get in my eyes.

Whoa… this works.

As soon as his implicit memory became explicit, he was ready to solve his problem with baths logically.

Also, after talking about this, he agrees to give Mimi a second chance 🙂

And if that doesn’t work…

My son’s bath time issue was pretty benign. Sometimes, the implicit memories causing anxiety in your child will be incredibly hard for your child to talk about.

If so, I recommend reading the Whole-Brain Child – particularly chapter 4 where they deal with this issue in depth.

Or, if you would like to use some additional strategies immediately, I’ve compiled them in this free printable for you.

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As a parent, you can help your child rationalize their stress by simply helping them think to a past experience that may have been traumatic and then helping them re-tell their story of it until that memory comes out of hiding.

We can’t deal with issues we know nothing about.

JoAnn Crohn

CEO/Founder at No Guilt Mom
JoAnn Crohn, M. Ed is a parenting educator and life coach who helps moms feel confident in raising empowered, self-sufficient kid while pursuing their own goals & passions.

She’s an accomplished writer, author, podcast host of the No Guilt Mom podcast, and speaker who appears in national media. Work with her personally in Balance VIP

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  1. This is super helpful! Thank you for making what’s a stressful situation easy to understand and now address!

    I’ve heard of the Whole Brain Child before and now definitely will consider purchasing it. As someone who works with adults on emotional issues, there’s definitely something I need to learn about the way my child’s brain works!

    1. I am loving everything about the Whole-Brain Child! Totally recommend it! I’m learning a lot about my own brain and how I react to things.

  2. Hi Joann,
    First time reading your articles and I love them. Loved the idea of the fruit wheel! Genius! Thank you for sharing it.
    I have 3 kiddos, 10yrs, 8yrs and 6yrs old. I fully relate to the story of your son who was afraid of baths and water going into his eyes. My youngest boy went through the same, then as he grew he didn’t enjoy the pool or being outside in the sun, it started to bother me a little. Something didn’t seem right, so I took him to the eye doctor at 4 and yes, he couldn’t see near and he needs permanent glasses, he also had severe allergy which was what made him so sensitive to the sunlight and the water.

    So just a thought, hope this is not your case. However I am very glad a friend of mine insisted and convinced me that those reactions weren’t normal. Otherwise I wouldn’t have found out until the kindergarten screening where they are required to get an eye exam.

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