If you ask young children what they want to be when they grow up, many of them answer enthusiastically with a “hero profession.” They want to be firefighters, police officers, fighter pilots, and soldiers. They want to make their world a safer, stronger place by going where the action (and sometimes the danger) is.
If you ask a child whose parent is in a hero profession, their answer may be more ambiguous, especially the older they get. The children of parents in hero professions are fiercely proud of their parents and want to emulate them, but that pride can be tinged with unease. They know first-hand the risks and uncertainties that come with these hero professions, and experience the unique anxiety of having a parent whose job requires them to put their life on the line.
Many hero children create their own coping strategies to manage their worries, and these strategies can help build their resilience and empathy. However, even the most resilient child will have difficulty coping with the anxiety from time-to-time. This leaves parents and caregivers to wonder, “How can I help my child cope?”
How do I know if my child is experiencing anxiety?
The signs of anxiety vary in each child depending on their chronological age, developmental stage, and personality. Some children are able to say, “I’m worried about Mom,” or “What if Dad doesn’t come home?” However, many children do not have the language to verbalize their anxiety, which means that adults need to interpret their non-verbal cues.
Dr. Donna Burrowes, a child psychologist, former Air Force officer, and mother of two, says that “younger children are more likely to experience physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, if they are feeling anxious.” It’s also not uncommon for younger children to experience a regression in skills and milestones – for example, a previously potty-trained child having accidents when they’re experiencing anxiety. She says they may also demonstrate behavioral changes, like temper tantrums, getting into trouble, and have difficulty focusing, but this is not as common as it is with older children.
In older children, behavioral symptoms are the primary indicator of anxiety. They may act out at home or school, have difficulty focusing, and withdraw from friends and family. Declining school performance, such as slipping grades or getting into trouble with teachers or peers, may also be a sign of underlying anxiety.
Burrowes notes that while parents may be tempted to focus on the problem behavior, it’s important to consider whether there’s a deeper meaning to it. Kids may not have the language to say, “I’m feeling anxious.” Instead, they are communicating through their actions, and parents may need to listen in a different way.
How can I help my anxious child?
- Normalize, don’t minimize, their feelings
The first step is to let your child know that what they’re feeling is natural and not uncommon. For example, “It’s okay to feel a little worried about Dad. A lot of kids whose parents are police officers feel nervous sometimes.” It’s important for kids to know that while anxiety doesn’t feel good, it is a normal response.
Sometimes, parents will inadvertently minimize their child’s feelings by saying something like, “don’t worry, Dad will be okay.” None of us want our children to worry, especially about us, and our instinct is to tell them to not worry. But to a child the phrase “don’t worry” sends the message that it’s not acceptable to feel the way they do. We think of it as a passing phrase, but they hear it as a direction. Think of how many times you tell your child “don’t” in the average day; “don’t yell,” “don’t play with your food,” “don’t touch the stove.” What we mean and what children hear are often two different things, and acknowledging the anxiety is an important part of normalizing it.
- Provide factual reassurance, not promises
Many parents are inclined to soothe a child’s anxiety by saying that everything will be fine, but the truth is we don’t know that, and on some level our children understand this. When we tell a child, “Mom will be fine, I promise,” we run the risk of eroding trust while causing them to question themselves, even if Mom is fine.
A better option is to use facts about the parent’s job to reassure your child. For example, “I understand why you’re feeling worried about Mom. But you know what? She spends a lot of time at work practicing and training with other firefighters. Mom knows what to do in a fire.” This type of response reassures your child that their parent is prepared for difficult situations without making promises about the future.
- Give just enough information
When children are worried about their parents, a common reaction is to withhold information in order to keep from further scaring them. However, when we withhold information, children may “fill in the blanks” with their own conclusions, which may create more anxiety and confusion.
When a child is asking questions about a parent’s job, the best tactic is to provide honest, developmentally appropriate information. Start with a simple, truthful statement, and provide detail if asked and as appropriate. As a parent, you are the best judge of your child’s readiness and understanding, and can factor in their age, maturity, and cognitive ability when deciding how much detail to provide.
- Help your child find an outlet
Another way to help manage anxiety in children is for them to choose an outlet for their stress, like an activity or sport. Some children respond well to physical activity to release stress (organized sports, playing outside, dance), whereas other children prefer creative play (art, writing, music).
Whatever they do, it’s important that your child be involved in choosing the activity. This gives them more control over the situation, which may help reduce their anxiety.
- Consider involving your child’s school
Your child likely spends a good portion of their time at school, and it may be helpful to bring their teacher, counselor, or school administrator into the discussion. “Involving teachers and educators is important for consistency,” Burrowes says. “Doing so can provide educators with a better understanding of signs and triggers for a child’s behavior and performance at school.”
Start by sharing the behaviors you’re observing in your child with your child’s teachers, as well as the strategies you’re using at home. Invite them to share their observations and feedback, and ask for their help in maintaining a consistent response to your child’s anxiety.
- Monitor your own anxiety and model appropriate behavior
In addition to your child, you may have fears and anxieties about your partner’s or co-parent’s job. While this is normal and understandable, it’s important to be aware of your own anxiety and how it may affect your child. This is an ideal opportunity to model the behavior you want to see in your child by first acknowledging and normalizing your own anxiety, and then implementing stress management techniques that work for you.
When to seek help from a mental health professional:
For children with parents in high-risk professions, some anxiety and worry is normal and expected. However, at what point should a parent seek additional help for their child? According to Dr. Nicole Ballinger, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, and mother of two, “unless a child has dysfunction in the areas of love, work, or play, mental health is probably not indicated.” Some questions to ask include:
- LOVE: Is your child’s anxiety interfering with his friendships? Can he relate to and interact with others in an age-appropriate way?
- WORK: Is your child able and willing to go to school? Is her anxiety keeping her from performing at an appropriate academic level?
- PLAY: Is your child’s anxiety preventing him from engaging in fun activities? Is she able to express joy or happiness?
Ballinger suggests that “if a parent has concerns about their child in two or more of these areas, or significant concern about one of these areas, then professional help should be considered.”
Although anxiety can be distressing for children and their parents, it can be effectively managed. By keeping the lines of communication open and directly addressing these thoughts and feelings, parents can normalize their children’s concerns and provide information to allay their fears.