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Managing Childhood Anxiety

July 21, 2022

By: Janelle Pejsa

Do your students or children struggle with anxiety? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. According to the CDC, 9.4 percent of children aged 3-17 were diagnosed with anxiety in 2016-2019 alone, and that percentage is only rising

With 22 years of experience in elementary education, I have taught several fourth and fifth grade students who have dealt with some form of anxiety. In the last 5 years, I have witnessed both the level of anxiety change dramatically as well as the way anxiety presents itself in kids. 

Feeling afraid, worried and anxious occasionally can be a natural and healthy response to the unknown or a possible danger. But, sometimes these feelings of anxiety become so intense that they negatively impact a child’s academics, peer relationships and emotional wellbeing. To prevent anxiety from negatively impacting our students’ and kids’ lives, it’s important to learn common causes and signs of anxiety as well as ways to help kids manage their anxiety. 

What commonly causes anxiety in kids?

Anxiety is often triggered by what’s happening in a child’s environment. Stressful situations like parents fighting, frequent moving, siblings arguing, the death of a family member or pet, problems with friends, getting bad grades on a test, not making a sports team or failing to live up to their parents expectations are common causes of anxiety. Kids may also become anxious if they don’t know where the next meal is coming from, are living with grandparents or have a family member who is ill. 

What does anxiety look like in kids? 

In my experience, anxiety appears differently in different kids, so it’s important to be aware of their behavior. Anxiety can look like a shy student who is biting their nails, tapping their pencil or constantly asking questions. Similarly, anxiety can appear as frequent trips to the bathroom, constant “stomach aches,” or repeated actions, like organizing their desk, cleaning it off with a wipe, or pacing the classroom. Anxiety can also look like students watching the same episodes of a TV show or reading the same books over and over because they want to know what is going to happen next. Even subtle actions like a student covering their work when you walk by can also indicate they are anxious ‘because’ their work may be incorrect. 

4 ways to help your anxious child

The good news is that if your child or student is having problems with anxiety, there’s plenty you can do to help them manage their anxiety. None of us like to see a child struggle with anxiety, but the best way to help kids overcome anxiety isn’t to remove the stressors, but to help them learn to manage their anxiety and function as well as they can–even when they’re anxious. Here are 4 strategies I like to use: 

  1. Listen. In my opinion, one of the best tools you can use with an anxious child is listening. Children have little control over their lives and want to be heard by the kids and adults around them. Don’t tell a child that their concern is “nothing to worry about” or “don’t worry about __, it’s ok.” If you are really listening, you will hear the child’s concerns and validate their thoughts. For example, rather than dismissing their worry, acknowledge their emotions and say something like, “I see you’re worried or afraid right now. It’s okay, I get worried and afraid sometimes, too.” If they brought it up, it’s a big deal in their world.  Make sure the child knows they are safe and you are a trusted adult.  
  1. Reassure them of their safety.  Instead of avoiding the situations that make them anxious, face the fear and reassure the child they are safe. Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it reinforces the anxiety over the long run.Try teaching kids to visualize safe spaces when they are anxious or to use a fidget toy to keep their minds calm in difficult situations. Small sips of water can also help kids focus on something else for a minute. 
  1. Play soothing music. Listening to soothing music can help calm kids in anxious situations. In fact, researchers at Stanford University found that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.” Fortunately, there are so many ways to find calming music these days–, Spotify, YouTube, and others all have soothing playlists/channels made just for kids. 
  1. Read a book. Reading is another effective tool for managing childhood anxiety. A child who is feeling anxious will often have a million thoughts and/or fears racing through their mind. They may be scatterbrained or fixated on one problem or thought. Sitting down to read an engaging book gives our minds something productive and enjoyable to do. A good book will draw the child in, and their worries will fall off to the side. Depending on the story, reading a book can even reframe a stressor or scary situation. 

About Guion the Lion

Guion the Lion is all about presenting messages of empathy, curiosity and adventure ​​before children begin making their own judgments and assumptions. Through the children’s book, parenting/teaching resources, fun activities and more, kids can learn how appreciating differences and embracing new ideas leads to unimaginable fun. 

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