How To Help Your Child With Anxiety
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So, I get asked about anxiety quite a bit. Anxiety is a natural part of our lives. We all feel or experience it at one time or another. However, It can be particularly difficult for us as parents to witness our child with anxiety. So what exactly is anxiety, when is it a problem and what should I do about it? These are probably the most common questions I get.
Obviously, as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I am a big advocate for talking about our feelings from a very young age. I’m talking in the womb young! Ha! I kid, but not really. The fact is anxiety is a normal emotion. I make sure to discuss all feelings with my boys on an ongoing basis. It helps normalize, identify and not be so overwhelming when they do experience these feelings. All super helpful!
I have 3 boys all under the age of 8. Unfortunately, we live in a society that does not necessarily encourage boys to be open and honest with their feelings. I don’t want them to grow up that way. I want my boys to actually be ok with feeling their feelings and communicate how they are feeling. Crazy concept, I know!
So, let’s get to it…
What Is Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal emotion. It’s a feeling of uneasiness, nervousness or worry, usually about a situation or something we don’t know the outcome. We have all felt it, right? Like that moment we watch our son or daughter walk into Preschool or Kindergarten for the very first time. Will they be ok, will they make friends, will they listen to the teacher? Often times our children are also nervous. Then we take on theirs and ours. ugh. It is such a nerve racking moment for us.
Think about what it’s like for our children to feel this way and not be able to identify it or explain how they are feeling. Their reaction can be displayed in many different ways too. Some examples could include crying, anger/acting out or running away/isolation. There are varying levels of anxiety.
The cause of anxiety is not totally known. It is believed there are several factors that affect the level of anxiety. They are categorized by biological, family and environmental factors.
Biological – I won’t get into the details because it can get technical and boring. Overall, it has to do with an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters to the brain. This includes, gamma-aminobutyric acid, serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine. In simple terms, serotonin is important in feeling good and being deficient has been linked to anxiety and depression. It is believed that someone with an imbalance of these neurotransmitters can be at a higher risk of anxiety. I told you it was technical and boring!!! Moving on…
Family/Genetics– Think about inherited genes. There have been studies that show 40% of people with generalized anxiety disorder have a close relative with the same disorder. However, it’s not just genes that play a role. It’s also family dynamics. In my experience I think this can play a major factor when it comes to children’s anxiety. If you, your partner has anxiety or an anxiety disorder this can affect a child, especially if they are already prone to anxiety. How you handle your own anxiety, how you make certain decisions based on your level of anxiety are being displayed and role modeled for your children.
Environmental– This is about natural occurring events, life changes, stressors or trauma that has occured in the child’s life. An example of this would be moving to a new city, a new school, getting in a car accident, a death in the family. All of these are things that can trigger anxiety for any of us, especially a child.
When Is Anxiety a Problem
First, let me say anxiety is NOT ALWAYS a problem. In fact, some anxiety is GOOD for us. If we sense danger our anxiety heightens. It is like an alarm telling us we should be wary of something. We want our children to feel that anxiety in order to protect themselves.
However, the severity of anxiety is how to determine if it’s a problem. An example would be when your child can’t stop worrying or it is out of proportion to the situation. Also take a look at how it is affecting you kiddo’s daily activities or development. If it is hindering his daily life then it may be a problem. For example, if you child is saying he has a tummy ache every morning or night and you sense they are avoiding school, that can be a problem. (Obviously you want to rule out any problems happening at school, i.e., being bullied) Often times kids avoid activities that cause them anxiety.
Common signs of anxiety in young children.
- emotional signs:
- cries often
- extremely sensitive
- Appears angry or agitated/grouchy for no apparent reason
- fears; being dropped off at school, relatives home, daycare, sports/extracurricular activity practice, fear of taking test (test anxiety), afraid of making mistakes, overall exaggerated fears
- Panic attacks – or fear of having a panic attack
- frequent nightmares
- physical signs:
- complains often of headaches, stomach aches without any medical reasons
- trouble falling or staying asleep
- refuses to eat outside of home
- refuses to use restroom outside of home
- racing heart, clammy hands, tense muscles
- behavioral signs:
- avoidance: doesn’t participate in school, social situations with peers (birthdays, extracurricular activities)
- asks the “what if” question over and over
- cries or gets emotional when seperated from a parent or loved one
- refuses to try things and says “I can’t do it”
- refuses to go to school or talk at school
- may act out – anxiety can be misunderstood as misbehaving
How To Handle Your Child’s Anxiety
What to DO if your child has anxiety:
- Stay calm when your child shows any of the signs above.
- Take time to educate yourself and your child (age appropriate)
- Try to keep a schedule or routine as consistent as possible (this can be difficult, I know)
- Discuss any changes with your child when you can’t keep a schedule or routine/expect anxious behavior when change occurs
- Help them through transitions
- Identify triggers of anxious behavior and discuss those with your child (age appropriate)
- Role play upcoming scenarios with your child. (i.e., Going to a party when they don’t know anyone)
- Praise them when they handle a situation well
- Keep YOUR Fears/worries to yourself. Your fears can exacerbate their fears
- Reassure them (but don’t overly reassure them) , “it’s ok to feel anxious on your first day of school.”
- Teach your child about anxiety. Get age appropriate books and review it with them. Wilma Jean the Worry Machine is a favorite of mine for young children.
- Make sure you and your partner are on the same page with how to properly handle your child’s anxiety
- Seek help from a Mental Health Professional if needed
What NOT to do if you child has anxiety:
- Don’t get mad, upset or angry with your child when they are feeling anxious. (This can be difficult at times, I know, but doing so negates their feelings).
- Don’t punish a child for feeling anxious.
- Don’t overly reassure your child that things will be ok. Ultimately, you want them to be able to manage their anxiety on their own and not rely on mommy or daddy to make it better.
- Don’t confuse other bad behaviors with anxious symptoms. Children can pick up on this and use/manipulate. You still want to hold them accountable for bad behaviors. You know your child and will need to determine if they are crossing that fine line.
5 Tools to use when your Child is Anxious:
- Deep breathing- teach them to breathe in like they are smelling a flower or their favorite food and breathe out like they are blowing out a candle.
- Go to their “happy” place. Have them imagine their favorite place. I actually have my boys talk about it out loud (when I am there). Have them describe it in detail, what does it look like, what colors do they see, do they smell anything, etc. It can be hard for a little one to imagine and keep that thought on their own. It is much easier when they say it out loud. I have used this technique when my boys have nightmares or “wakemares” as they call them. This is when they are thinking of something scary or bad prior to falling asleep. My oldest son always talks about how he scored 4 goals playing ice hockey! He loves to talk about it. It’s so sweet! At this point I can recite his story in my head while he says it. He usually falls asleep while telling the story. Works great!
- Physically go to a space that is calming or soothing for them. If at home, create this space with them. Maybe it has a few items that are meaningful for them. A blanket, stuffed animal, a book or a pillow.
- Be active-some children don’t need to calm down but instead they need to burn off some nervous energy. Have them run around, do jumping jacks, be physical.
- Use a “stress” ball (something soft to squeeze) or use a “calm down” bottle (a bottle filled with water and glitter glue or other items). A “calm down” bottle is exactly what it sounds like. It can be used for many things. Your child can shake the bottle and watch it while the glitter or items settle. It helps settle their mind and their nerves. Works great! Check out this post from My Crazy Blessed Life! Johanna does a great and inexpensive way to do these bottles. I have made these with my boys in the past. It’s a fun activity and a great way to teach them about the feeling of anxiety! It’s a win, win!
I hope this helped a little. Please let me know if you have any tips you use with your young ones. Anxiety can be a scary thing, especially for kids.
When in doubt it is always important to seek a mental health professionals help.