By Raising Children Network
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Anxious preschooler and her mother
 
The stepladder approach is a step-by-step way of helping with anxiety in children. It’s based on the principle of ‘graded exposure’. This means starting off small, tackling the little things before you face the really scary things.

Using the stepladder approach for anxiety in children

The stepladder approach works like this:

  • Start with a situation or thing that causes your child the least anxiety. Sometimes you might need to put your child in this situation a few times until he feels comfortable with it.
  • Move on to another situation that makes your child feel a bit more anxious. Again, go through it a few times until your child can handle it.
  • Gradually move through more and more challenging situations.

When using the stepladder approach for anxiety in children, it’s important to encourage your child by giving lots of praise for achieving each step on the ladder.

You can also use rewards as incentives for your child to move forward. Rewards might include an extra book in the evening, more cuddle time with you, or a trip to the park. Make sure the reward matches the degree of difficulty – for example, don’t give a small reward for the most difficult step.

Note: the stepladder approach can be used with children of all ages. Grown-ups can use it too.

Coping in difficult situations
You can help your child develop some tricks and strategies for coping in anxious situations:

  • Younger children (3-6 years): help your child to come up with a phrase she can say when she’s in an anxious situation. For example, ‘I can be brave’, ‘This is a friendly dog’ or ‘Mummy will come back’.
  • Older children (seven years or older): your child might learn more quickly during the steps on his ladder if you help him to think realistically. For example, encourage your child to ask himself questions like ‘What happened last time?’ and ‘How likely is it to happen?’.

Being a role model
Children learn how to cope with difficult situations by watching other people (their role models) and listening to what those people say. So think about how you act and what you say in situations that you find stressful. For example, you might want to avoid saying things like, ‘A spider! You should stay away from spiders. They can kill you, you know’.

Benefits of the stepladder approach

  • Children get used to facing the situations that make them anxious. This is better than avoiding them.
  • Children face their fears and find out that they might not be so bad after all.
  • Children get to use and practise the skills and techniques that they’ve developed for coping.
  • Children get a great sense of achievement as they progress ‘up’ the stepladder.
Below you can read through some sample stepladders. The idea is for you to adapt them to your child’s age and particular fear or anxiety. If you’re unsure about how to do this, consider talking to a professional – perhaps a child and family health nurse, GP, school counsellor or child psychologist.

Stepladder approach for a four-year-old with social anxiety

This child has social anxiety. She’s afraid of meeting and talking to new people. Here’s a stepladder that might help her overcome her anxiety.

Here’s a stepladder for this child:

  1. Say ‘goodbye’ to one friend that she has met a few times.
  2. Say ‘goodbye’ to a child she doesn’t know at the park.
  3. Say ‘hello’ to a child she doesn’t know at the park.
  4. Say ‘hello’ to the person at the supermarket checkout.
  5. Say ‘hello’ to an adult she has just met.
  6. Say ‘hello’ to an unfamiliar child at preschool.
  7. Say ‘Hello – can I play with you?’ to a child she doesn’t know at the park.
  8. Talk to a child she doesn’t know very well at preschool about what happened on the weekend.
  9. Visit a new group or class and say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to one of the children in the class.
  10. Visit the new group or class and talk with one of the children in the class.
  11. Visit the new group or class and talk with two of the children in the class.

Stepladder approach for a seven-year-old with separation anxiety

This child has separation anxiety. He’s afraid of leaving his mother, even for a short time. At the start of the stepladder, this child can’t sleep alone and sleeps in his parents’ bed.

Here’s a stepladder for this child:

  1. Stay inside and play while Mum puts the washing on the line.
  2. Stay in his bedroom and play for half an hour while Mum is in a different room.
  3. Stay at home with Dad while Mum visits the neighbour for 10 minutes.
  4. Sleep on a mattress on the floor, next to Mum and Dad’s bed.
  5. Stay at home with Dad while Mum goes shopping for half an hour.
  6. Stay at home with Dad while Mum goes out to lunch.
  7. Sleep on the mattress on the floor but move it closer to the door, away from Mum and Dad’s bed.
  8. Stay at home with an aunty while Mum and Dad go out for lunch. 
  9. Stay at home with Dad while Mum goes out for the night.
  10. Stay at home with an aunty while Mum and Dad go out for the night.
  11. Sleep in his own bedroom.
  12. Stay at home with an aunty and sleep in his own bedroom while Mum and Dad go out for the night.

Stepladder approach for an eight-year-old with generalised anxiety

This child has generalised anxiety and fears being late, especially for school. She also constantly asks questions like ‘What’s the time?’, ‘Are we going to be late?’ and ‘What will happen if I’m late?’.

Here’s a stepladder for this child:

  1. Arrive only five minutes early to music class, and ask only two questions about being late.
  2. Arrive on time to a friend’s house, and ask only two questions about being late.
  3. Arrive five minutes late to another friend’s house, and ask only two questions about being late.
  4. Arrive at school five minutes before the bell goes, and ask only one question about being late.
  5. Be late to music class by one minute, and ask only one question about being late.
  6. Arrive at school one minute before the bell goes, and ask only one question about being late.
  7. Be 15 minutes late to visit a friend’s house, and ask no questions about being late.
  8. Arrive at school as the bell goes, and ask no questions about being late.
  9. Arrive five minutes late to music class, and ask no questions about being late.
  10. Arrive at school 10 minutes after the bell, and ask no questions about being late.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 28-11-2016