Dear David Coleman: 'Our daughter gets anxious in new situations and we're worried it will only worsen'

Question: My nine-year-old daughter becomes very anxious in new situations. Her reactions can range from being very difficult and defiant towards us, to being very upset and in complete fear of the situation she is facing. She has a small group of friends from her class in school but finds it difficult to make new friends outside of that. We are worried that her anxiety will only worsen as she reaches her teens. Both my wife and I had childhood anxiety so we can fully empathise with her. Any advice to help her would be appreciated.

David replies: Anxiety when faced with new, unexpected, or unusual situations is to be expected. It is a natural response to the unpredictability that comes with novelty. Your daughter may feel that anxiety to a greater extent than other children, but the anxiety itself is common and quite normal.

In most situations, parents help their children to cope with the uncertainty that comes with new situations by acknowledging the fear that may be present, and then soothing, reassuring, or offering coping strategies.

One of the dilemmas you may face is that rather than being able to recognise and validate her experience of anxiety, you may in fact, be feeling your own anxiety resurrected from the past. If you both have experienced childhood anxiety, then it may be that your daughter’s anxiety actually re-triggers you back into your own experiences of fear, powerlessness or distress. You may be getting lost in your own anxiety in a way that prevents you from emotionally supporting your daughter with her anxiety.

It sounds like your daughter gets overwhelmed because she feels the challenge of being in a new situation is too great for her. Her anxiety bubbles over with such intensity that she can’t regulate it, calm it, or soothe it.

I can see why she might then react angrily towards you, since expressing anger is a functional way of releasing some of the intense feeling she has.

I think your daughter needs to learn some practical skills and methods of calming herself, and physically relaxing, when she is experiencing anxiety. If she can learn some relaxation skills, then she will be in a stronger position to try out some behavioural experiments, should she want to deal with her anxieties.

The concept of experimenting is a really helpful one for children who experience anxiety, since it incorporates the idea of a short trial, where control rests with the experimenter, with a review to evaluate how the experiment went.

If, for example, your daughter feels like she is being brought to some new extra-curricular activity and will then be left to “sink or swim”, so to speak, she may feel too much anxiety to be able to cope.

If, on the other hand, she decides, herself, to trial a new activity, she can plan to be there for just the first 15 minutes (or 30 minutes).

If the time has gone OK, she can plan to spend more time there on the same day, or to come back the next time and for a longer period.

In this way, she gets to slowly approach the feared situation, but with enough opportunity to retreat if her anxiety builds too much, too quickly. She needs to experience some of the anxiety (and realise she can cope with it and soothe it), without becoming overwhelmed.

In other social situations, she may need the same level of control to be able to spend a short time with new people, without her fears overcoming her, and be able to retreat for a little while, if necessary. It is this “two-steps forward, one-step back” approach that might yield the greatest success for her.

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