As a parent, it can be difficult to anxiety in children. I’ve experienced this first hand with my own kids. By understanding what anxiety is and how to help our children manage it, we can provide our kids with the support and resources they need to overcome their fears and worries.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a common condition that affects people of all ages, but is a growing concern in children. It is a normal response to stress or danger. It’s the feeling of unease, fear and worry that children (and adults) often experience facing stressful situations, such as starting a new school year, trying something new, going to a new place, taking a big test or talking in front of a large group of people.
What are some common signs of anxiety in children?
All children–both typically developing children and those with special needs–experience anxiety, but how it shows up in each child is unique to that child.
For instance, my son, Guion, struggled with terrible stomach aches as he was starting middle school. Day after day, he’d wake up with a stomach ache. He didn’t recognize that he was nervous about school, so we didn’t either. We had a few doctor visits to try and ascertain what was happening. It wasn’t until later that we realized he was anxious about going to school.
The bottom line is, if your child is feeling anxious, they may not know how to tell you that’s how they feel. Don’t make assumptions. Get curious and ask questions. It's essential to better understand what is really happening, so you can help them cope and manage their feelings. Here are a few common indicators of anxiety in children:
- Excessive worry or fear about everyday activities
- Refusal to go to school or participate in activities
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
- Physical symptoms, such as: fast heart-rate, stomachache, nausea, headache, feeling very cold or hot.
If you notice any of these symptoms, talk to your child about their feelings. And if you’re still not sure what to do, seek professional help to provide support.
How to help manage your child’s anxiety
When our kids are anxious, we want to help them feel better. But by trying to protect our kids from the things that worry or upset them, we can accidentally make their anxiety worse. In my experience, the best way to help children overcome anxiety is to teach them to cope with their anxiety as it arises. Here are some helpful tips that can help your child manage their anxiety:
- Build healthy habits: Structure around a healthy lifestyle can help reduce stress and support a positive mood. This is a group effort so allow the family to join in. Set up family routines — knowing what to expect can help your child feel more secure and less anxious. Ensure your child gets plenty of sleep, eats a healthy diet, sets healthy guidelines around entertainment and screen time, and engages in regular physical activity.
- Practice preparedness through conversation: If you realize your child is anxious about something, talk them through it. Prepare them for it. Help them visualize different scenarios so they are prepared for what could come next. Let them know that you’re there to listen to their worries and fears and help them overcome them. Rather than dismissing their worry, you can also acknowledge their emotions and encourage them to talk about what is bothering them and let them know their feelings are valid.
- Remind them of their strengths: All kids have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s often their weaknesses and insecurities that may make them feel anxious about certain situations. Rather than letting them harp on their weaknesses, remind them of their strengths and how they help the situation at hand.
- Avoid avoidance: It’s natural for children to avoid things that make them anxious, but this can cause their anxiety to worsen. Encourage your child to gradually face their fears by gradually exposing them to feared objects or activities and approaching them with a growth mindset. Praise and reward brave behavior by offering support and reassurance along the way. For instance, encourage them to try the thing that scares them little by little: Go into the store by themselves for just 5 minutes. Stay in their dark bedroom for a few extra minutes. Swim on their own for 1 minute, etc. Set a timer so they know it is truly a finite amount of time.
- Create a safe, cozy place for them to cope: When your child is calm, start a conversation about things they can do to help manage their worries when they happen. Listening to music, coloring and reading are great calming activities. Create a cozy space in your home that your child can go to practice these techniques whenever they feel as if they are beginning to get worried or scared – the corner in a bedroom or closet with a basket of “tools” worked well for us.
- Teach them to ask for help: It’s okay to not be okay. We hear that all the time, but it’s so true. We are our own best advocates. We must teach our children to ask for help and encouragement when they are anxious whether it’s from you or another caretaker.
To prevent anxiety negatively impacting our children's daily lives, it is important for us to address each child as an individual. Because we’re all different, some anxiety management techniques may work with one child and others may work for another child. The key is to figure out what works for each individual child.
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