How Can I Help My Child with GAD?

A Child Anxiety Expert Weighs In on Parents' Common Questions

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In this article, Sarah Trosper Olivo, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety, OCD and depression in children, adolescents and adults, answers my questions about how parents can help their children with generalized anxiety disorder.

Many parents describe themselves as anxious and wonder if that is why their child suffers with anxiety. Is a parent’s anxiety responsible for a child’s worries?

Maybe, and maybe not. Anxiety can be inherited, and it can be learned. Children are also born with their own unique temperaments that can make them more vulnerable to worry and fear. I try to help parents understand that they couldn’t help it if they “gave” their child anxiety anymore than they could control their child’s hair or eye color. The most important thing to consider is whether there are habits at home that are keeping the anxiety around. Those are the things you can control.

What strategies are most important for a parent to use if their child struggles with anxiety?

I always start by reminding parents that the desire to stop your child from feeling anxious is second nature and it can backfire by fueling the anxiety instead of dampening it. If you’re the one managing your child’s anxiety by reassuring them or letting them avoid things they’re afraid of, then they miss the opportunity to learn braver behaviors.

  • Start with modeling a sense of calm yourself, even if you have to act against instinct at first.
  • Next, try to help your child think about what it is they’re worried about. Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes they need a little help understanding why they’re refusing to go to that birthday party.
  • Talk to your child about ways you’ve handled similar problems in the past or directly model brave behaviors.
  • You can let them know that just because they’re thinking an anxious thought, that doesn’t mean their anxious thought is true. Help them think of ways to challenge their worry thought.
  • Talk with your child to figure out what their goal is, or let them know what your expectations are, and then break it down into smaller, more manageable steps.

What do you say to the parent whose child is acting out because they feel anxious?

Feeling anxious is not an excuse for defiant or inappropriate behaviors. Parents often have more empathy when their child is anxious and let them act out in ways they normally wouldn’t tolerate. As adults, we can’t yell at a friend or our boss just because we’re anxious. A good early lesson is to help them manage their fears in appropriate ways.

If a child is anxious now, will anxiety always be a problem for him/her?

Great news! Just as kids can learn skills for how to be a better piano or soccer player, they can learn ways to manage their anxiety. Small steps taken now can lead to a life free of excessive worry and fear.

It's worth saying that the goal with anxiety is always to turn down the volume, not to turn it off completely. Some fears really can be extinguished for good. However, some children will always be more introspective, more aware of potential threats in their world, or more prone to worrying about the future. The true test is whether or not they can be aware of their anxiety yet manage it skillfully so that they can have a full and meaningful life. 

What tips do you have for parents on how to talk a child about anxiety?

The first step is to normalize worry and talk about how it can be helpful. Let your child know you fully understand they’re doing the best they can AND that they can learn ways to feel and act more bravely.

Should parents notify a child's school about his or her worries and anxious behaviors?

A lot of parents worry that their child will be labeled at school and decide to keep this information from the powers-that-be. If your child isn’t feeling anxious at school, then there may be no need to let teachers or counselors know about the issue. That said, if he or she is struggling with anxiety of any kind during the school day, then often the best way to manage it is to coordinate with a trusted teacher or staff member to help guide the child in managing their anxiety skillfully during the day.

Another issue that I hear about from families is that their child spends so much time “holding it together” at school that they are emotionally depleted by the end of the day or act out at home. This would be another reason to get the school involved as they can often provide some insight into what’s making school so difficult.  

If your child is working with a clinician on anxiety-related issues, you can ask for help with how to talk with the school and clarify what role would be helpful for staff there to have.

What recommendations do you have if one parent feels concerned about a child’s degree of anxiety, but the other parent does not? What’s a normal versus unusual amount of anxiety in a child?

Anxiety is a tough one for parents because they have to play a lot of guessing games. Unlike behavioral issues, anxiety is a very internal, yet your child might not be ready or able to tell you what’s going on inside his or her mind. And, like many other traits, there is a wide range of normal when it comes to anxiety. Worry and fear can be helpful, even protective. If your child didn’t worry at all about grades then maybe you’d want to inject them with a little bit more angst to get those grades up! But there are some red flags to look out for, including persistent stomach ages, trouble with friendships, reluctance to go to sleep, irritability, or a pattern of avoiding things that their peers are able to do. You also might notice more fighting amongst your spouse or child. If the disagreements persist then that might be a sign to ask a trusted friend, teacher or professional about the issues you’re noticing at home.

About Sarah Trosper Olivo, Ph.D.

Dr. Trosper Olivo is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety, OCD and depression in children, adolescents and adults.  She is a founding member of a group private practice, City and Country CBT, with offices in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Westchester. In addition to the evaluation and treatment of youth with anxiety and other problems, she offers consultation to adults in managing life changes and role transitions (including becoming a parent!). For further information, you can visit     

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