Everyone gets anxious. Whether it’s that pit in your stomach before taking a test or the tension you feel when faced with a big decision, you know the feeling. While a bit of anxiety is “a normal part of life” according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s something that can turn harmful if left unchecked.
Children, too, go through anxious phases, many of which are temporary and harmless. But if a child is experiencing prolonged periods of fear, nervousness and shyness, and starts to avoid places and activities, it may indicate that the anxiety has mushroomed into a disorder that requires attention.
A 2015 study by the Child Mind Institute revealed that 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not getting treatment.
“Untreated childhood anxiety is a powerful predictor for adult anxiety, substance abuse and depression,” says Jane Bida, a licensed clinical social worker in the Boulder area who specializes in pediatric anxiety. Additionally, Bida notes that when a child’s anxiety is left unattended, it may cause the child to miss out on opportunities to learn valuable life skills, develop adaptive behaviors, and feel successful and confident.
Why is Everyone So Anxious?
Genetics, temperament, external stressors and modeling all play a part in the development of anxiety, in addition to the fact that we live in an increasingly competitive world. “Expectations are higher than ever with constant testing, specialized sports at young ages and competitive living both in person and on social media,” says Holly Vause, a doctor whose Denver practice focuses on pediatric mental health. All of that can certainly augment normal anxiety.
Some parents believe that anxiety is bad in any form, and try to protect their children from any fear, discomfort or uncertainty.
“Often children aren’t taught that anxiety is a normal human emotion and is also necessary for our survival,” says Bida. “When well-intentioned parents, teachers, doctors and therapists try to protect kids from their anxious feelings by enabling the anxiety and permitting avoidance, children only become more fearful, convinced that the situation really is dangerous and that they can’t handle it,” she says.
Avoidance of feared situations is effective in the moment, but in the long run, avoidance only makes the anxiety worse.
Signs to Watch For
Bida and Vause warn that if a child’s anxiety interferes with participation in activities, creates disruption in family routines, or causes frustration and stress in family relationships, it may be time to seek help. Increased irritability, a fear of falling asleep because of excessive worry or nightmares, emotional distress out of proportion to the situation, repetitive demands for reassurance and extreme perfectionism are also red flags.
Helen Thilly, a licensed clinical social worker in Denver, adds that children with anxiety disorders may also exhibit consistent somatic complaints. If they frequently complain about stomachaches or headaches, before school or in advance of events, it may be time to seek help.
How to Help Your Anxious Child
Children need tools to mitigate the outcroppings of anxiety before it becomes a problem. The following strategies can help.
- Normalize It.
- Bida explains that anxiety comes from the amygdala—the “fight-flight-freeze” center of the brain. The powerful physical symptoms of anxiety (stomach upset, rapid heart beat, trembling) result from the activation of this “fight-flight-freeze” center of the brain and are designed to help us run away from danger. Children with anxiety sometimes don’t understand that if they feel scared, they are typically not actually in danger. Provide them with explanations about what they are feeling.
- Challenge It.
- Walk through “what if” scenarios with your children. For example, Thilly says that “if your child is worried about failing a school test, you could help him come up with ‘cheerleader thoughts” to remind him of what he is good at and help him identify other evidence (he’s studied hard, he’s never failed a test before, etc.) that shows the unlikelihood of failure.”
- This is a movement toward realistic thinking and the development of coping skills. It also promotes flexibility, which is essential since nothing in life is 100 percent certain. Children need to learn to handle the anxiety that comes with uncertainty, too.
- Calm It.
- Regularly practice breathing, mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Bida suggests providing a safe place where children can go if they are having a meltdown or need to relax. Retreat to a corner, a couch, a closet—any place that works. Fill the special place with blankets, games, photos, music or any feel-good items that help children refocus.
- Name It.
- Have your child name their worry, such as “worry bully,” “worry bug” or “Bob”. Bida says giving it a name and telling children they can boss it around helps them take control of their feelings.
- Model It.
- Talk about how you manage your own anxieties and share some of your coping mechanisms with your child. If you don’t do this well, consider what you could start doing, or seek help in this area. As a parent, you have the power to help your child move away from fear and toward self-confidence.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Facts for Families Guide
- Search “Anxiety in Children”
- Worry Wise Kids
- What to Do When You Worry Too Much, What to Do When you Dread Your Bed, What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.
- Please Explain “Anxiety” to Me! by Laurie Zelinger, Ph.D. and Jordan Zelinger, MS ED
- Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children by Reid Wilson Ph.D. and Lynn Lyons LICSW
- Helping Your Anxious Child by Ronald M. Rapee Ph.D., Ann Wignall, D. Psych., Susan Spence, Ph.D., Heidi Lyneham, Ph.D., Vanessa Cobham, Ph.D.
- The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland