Children feel anxious just like adults do, though many adults don’t recognize it as such or know how to help their children manage it. It is normal for children to feel fear or worry about some things. They feel anxious in the dark, around strangers, or maybe when they are away from their caregivers for a while.
As they grow and mature, many of these fears will subside, but they can become more severe and need more attention from caregivers and possibly a professional. There are different types of anxiety children can experience, and their symptoms vary. It’s important to know symptoms to pay attention to so caregivers can know when their anxiety is significantly affecting their lives.
Different types of anxiety in children.
- Repeated and excessive worry about leaving home or being away from home for any given time.
- Constant worry about losing a parent or family member to death, abandonment, etc.
- Constant worry about being taken away from parents in some way (kidnapping, for example).
- Refusing to leave parents’ side or leave home.
- Repeated nightmares about separation from family.
- Refusal to be alone at home without a parent or someone there.
- Refusal to go to school or other places parents are not present, especially sleeping away from parents.
- Being overly clingy.
- Somatic symptoms like recurrent stomachaches.
- Few relationships with anyone outside of family.
- Excessive worry about talking to strangers, peers, authority figures, etc.
- Avoidance of social situations.
- Excessive and recurrent worry about several different things.
- Feel anxious in many different settings around different types of people.
- Somatic symptoms like stomachaches, panic attacks, racing heart, shortness of breath, headaches, etc.
- Despite the child’s best efforts, he or she is unable to decrease anxious thoughts and other symptoms.
- Daily life and function are significantly impacted by symptoms.
- Excessive crying, aggression, rage, or withdrawal.
Children can also experience different types of phobias and other anxiety disorders, like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Anxiety can affect children in every area of their lives. They may struggle more in school, have difficulty making new friends or trying new things, become overly dependent on parents, deal with constant physical issues, and struggle with sleeping, to name just a few.
Parents are responsible for noticing these symptoms and their effects and help children learn healthy ways to manage their anxiety. With the right tactics parents can help children’s anxiety decrease so they will be able to live full and balanced lives. It could also help to find a counselor to work with your child, too, so he or she can tailor interventions to your child’s needs.
Ways to help children manage anxiety.
Help them identify their emotions, body sensations, and thoughts.
This is one of the most vital things children can learn to do. It not only builds awareness and emotional intelligence but naming an experience can bring some immediate symptom relief.
Print a feelings wheel or feeling faces. When your child is exhibiting some of the aforementioned symptoms, let him or her show you what feeling he or she is experiencing specifically. Then ask him or her to close his or her eyes and tell you what things he or she feels while anxious (heart beating fast, tense muscles, tightness in throat and chest, racing heart, stomachache, etc.).
Then ask him or her to tell you what worries or thoughts he or she is having. Again, simply talking about these things can bring immediate relief.
Do something calming or relaxing.
Children can’t regulate their bodies as well as adults, so be careful not to expect them to be able to know how to calm down. They need help. Some things that can help them calm down include the following:
- A long hug or back rub.
- Deep belly breaths.
- Lying down or closing eyes.
- Snuggling with a pet or favorite stuffed animal.
- Taking a bath.
- Running warm water over their hands.
- Coloring, drawing, or something creative or musical.
- Watching a favorite movie.
- Taking a moment alone in a quiet, safe place.
- Drink a warm drink, like milk or hot chocolate.
- Imagine their favorite calm, relaxing place like the beach or their room.
- Listening to music.
Make space for them to be honest about their worries.
Children need to feel emotionally safe with their caregivers to be able to talk to them about what they worry about most. It’s important in these conversations for parents to be good and active listeners, making eye contact, giving undivided attention, leaning toward them, and asking them reflective questions.
Be wary of the need to rescue or fix your child’s anxiety too quickly with statements like, “You’ll be okay. There’s nothing to worry about.” This can feel dismissive to a child, and eventually, your child will stop sharing his or her thoughts with you.
Validate their feelings with something like, “Wow, that does sound scary” or “I can understand that you’d feel that way about that situation, or “Help me understand why this matters so much to you.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to help someone calm down and begin to think differently about their situation.
Gently help them challenge irrational thoughts and see more helpful perspectives.
Anxious thoughts often are irrational and unhelpful, and often about things that have never happened and may never happen in the future. Once your child has told you what he or she fears, help him or her see a different way to look at the situation and provide more rational, hopeful, and realistic thoughts.
Again, children are not often developmentally able to do this without assistance until they are a bit older. Even after providing alternative narratives for them to consider, they still may struggle to believe those things. That is normal, so it will require patience and empathy from their caregivers as they navigate these conversations with children.
Promote physical activity.
Regular exercise is proven to help reduce symptoms of anxiety over time for adults and children alike, so encourage physical activity regularly. Many children get this with physical education in schools, but often they need more body movement.
Additional exercise gets their nervous energy out so their bodies can release hormones that can reduce stress and anxiety. So, take family walks. Ride bikes at a local park or around your neighborhood. Go for a swim. Get involved in community recreational activities (sports, dance, gymnastics, etc.). Do yoga for children with your child.
Do something grounding.
Engage their five senses with exercises that are calming. An example is 5,4,3,2,1, where a child lists out five things he or she can see, four things to hear, three things to touch, two things to smell, and one thing to taste.
Other things to engage one or two senses at a time can be helpful, too, like smelling a favorite fragrance, holding something soft, using a quiet voice, playing with a fidget spinner, feeling the warm sun on skin, hugging their bodies, and drinking a cold glass of water.
Above all, be understanding and compassionate.
Symptoms of anxiety can be scary and disorienting for children, and the last thing they need is a parent who is inattentive to their needs or who dismisses their experience in some way. Your gentle, patient attitude toward your children can be one of the most calming things of all for them if you’ve proven to be a safe, consistent, trusted person in their lives.
So be patient. Try to understand your child’s experience, listen without interrupting, and do whatever is in your power to help your child in the moment.
Children are resilient and learn how to cope with hard things in life every single day. But they are still children and need adults to show them how to understand their anxiety, talk about their anxiety, and manage it so it doesn’t manage them.
Finally, the most important way to teach your children how to manage their anxiety well is to manage your anxiety well, too. If you’re not sure how, maybe it’s time to seek out professional therapy for yourself. Our kids learn by watching, so make an appointment today to talk about anxiety management with a caring counselor.
“Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Homework”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Distracted”, Courtesy of Bill Wegener, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bored”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License