The other day, I heard a grandfather talk about a phone call he received from his daughter. She told him how his elementary school-aged grandson had been teased and bullied at his local church when he wore glasses for the first time.

We often hear national news about bullying-related youth suicides. And frequently, many of my clients suffering from anxiety mention that they were bullied at some time in their middle school or high school years.

Do kids who get bullied become anxious, or are anxious kids more likely to get bullied? The truth is, it can be both. Children who are bullied experience trauma. They will develop anxiety and may need professional help to overcome that negative experience.

Some youngsters are genetically predisposed to becoming anxious. When they get bullied, not only do they have to work through their trauma, but their anxiety is triggered and they become more anxious.

What can parents do?

Be aware.

Parents need to recognize their children’s needs and fears. Consider modifying your teaching and discipline skills if your child experiences the following symptoms: long and intense temper tantrums, extraordinary stubbornness, meltdowns for no apparent reason, medically unexplained physical pains, body-focused repetitive behaviors (e.g., nail biting, skin picking, hair pulling), eating and sleeping difficulties.

If you don’t know your family mental health history, it’s a good idea to find out what type of mental health challenges your parents, grandparents, and other family members have experienced or are still experiencing. You don’t want to label your child with a diagnosis, but it’s a good idea to know what you may be dealing with, and to consult a mental health professional so they can evaluate your child and provide advice.

Adjust your parenting skills.

Sometimes children suffer from anxiety or experience other psychological challenges. Parents may not realize it until negative events occur, or their children are refusing to go to school.

We often hear parents say, “I love all my children the same.” The only problem is they also want to treat them and discipline them equally. This doesn’t work because each child has his or her own personality and disposition. What works for one may not work for the other.

Parenting books and advice abound and quite often parents get conflicting advice. For example, if you have a child who experiences anxiety, some parenting advice will simply not work. An anxious child who is sent to timeout may feel horrified sitting alone in a room.

Cultivate your children’s emotional intelligence.

When children are able to comprehend their own emotions and find positive ways to manage them, they are able to overcome stressful and challenging situations. This doesn’t happen overnight. We need to help them understand other people’s emotions. We need to model how to empathize with others. Research indicates that the ability to empathize and communicate with others can make a big difference in the quality of one’s life.

Children who experience anxiety may have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings because they are too busy trying to figure out their own. However, it is possible to help them develop empathy and manage their own emotions.

Parents can teach communication skills to their children. They can set the example by talking about their own feelings. They can teach them it’s okay to feel sad, mad, or scared.

It’s important to help children recognize their thoughts. I often meet adolescents, young adults, and even adults who have difficulty recognizing their thoughts and expressing them. Encourage your children to verbalize their thoughts and feelings, and to see how these affect their behavior.

Don’t tell them how to feel.

Quite often we say things like, “Isn’t this fun?” “Aren’t you excited about this?” What if they are not excited or having fun? You can express how you feel and ask them how they might be feeling. Ask them genuine questions to help them develop their own opinions and not to be afraid of stating them.

Build up their confidence.

Help your children recognize their strengths. Acknowledge their weaknesses and point out that everyone has weaknesses and that it’s okay. Help them understand that we learn from our mistakes. They need to understand that you love them and accept them for who they are, not for what they do and accomplish.

Children who develop confidence in themselves accept who they are, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes children who experience anxiety can be quick in accepting defeat and get into a helpless mode. Frequently parents will be harsh and scold them and order them “to try, or else!” This parental attitude will exacerbate their child’s anxiety. On the other hand, some parents feel guilt and are sad about their child’s fears. They tend to quickly rescue them and inadvertently reinforce their child’s sense of helplessness.

When your children experience anxiety and you push them, they will clam up and your strategy will backfire.

Additional tips to help your children build confidence:

  1. Shape their behavior, one step at a time.
  2. Help them find appropriate ways to soothe themselves.
  3. Allow for them to find their talents and develop them. They don’t have to do what siblings are doing. If their interests are completely different from what the family culture is, help them cultivate their interests and support them. Remember each of your children is unique and they need to find their own niche.
  4. Don’t compare your children with others, and help them so they won’t do it either.
  5. Expose them to different activities and social situations. Let them acclimate themselves.
  6. Be patient. They need to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. They won’t learn anything if you force or rescue them. Take small steps towards the desired goal but don’t rush the process.
  7. Teach your children to look people in the eye. When they are young, start by telling them to look at the person’s eyes and tell you what color they are. Looking for the other person’s eye color will shape their behavior and get them used to looking at people’s eyes.
  8. Teach them the confidence stance: head up, shoulders back, walk tall. Shy and anxious children often slouch, and bullies can spot them a mile away. Play games to teach your children the confidence stance.
  9. Role-play scenarios that will help your children respond in confidence. Teach them to say no if they don’t feel comfortable doing something others may be asking them to do.
  10. Teach them about guilt and what its purpose is. Many individuals sometimes feel guilty when they fear offending a person or losing a friend.

No matter what your child’s personality is, with teaching, practice, patience, and time they can become assertive and stronger. Just remember, the road to parenting success is always under construction.