Most often, in this blog series on Children & Stressors, I write about an identifiable situation or event that causes children some level of stress, but this post is a little different. Today, I am writing about anxiety in general and more specifically children who tend to be anxious about a variety of stressors. These children may become anxious on a more regular basis.
Parenting a child who experiences anxiety can feel overwhelming and challenging. We want to be supportive and validating of a child’s experience without inadvertently perpetuating the anxiety. We also want to help a child in learning how to cope with anxiety while also being careful not to be punitive. And we are trying to figure out how to do all of this with an anxious child in front of us! Hopefully this post will help you generate some new ideas about how to support your child and reduce any stress that his/her anxiety may be causing you.
This posted is focused on addressing anxiety in children in the preschool to elementary school age range, although you may find some helpful information for other age groups as well. I would recommend checking out the work of Natasha Daniels if you have a younger child who appears anxious. Natasha writes frequently about anxious toddlers on her website (and in her recent book).
What does anxiety in children look like?
The symptoms of anxiety vary from child to child. Below you will find a list of some possible symptoms of anxiety.
- Frequent worry
- Fears of failure
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty sitting still, fidgety
- Frequent crying
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches
- Muscle Tension
- Sweating or shaking
- Avoidance of anxiety provoking situations such as; school or social situations
- Difficulty with transitions or change in routine that exceeds what you would expect from a child of their age.
3 Key Concepts for Helping Children Manage Anxiety
- Provide your child with age appropriate education about anxiety.
- Often times, just labeling the anxiety and learning that the physical or emotional symptoms that they are experiencing are a result of anxiety is helpful to a child. Some children like to give their anxiety a name which can be helpful in externalizing the anxiety.
- Normalize the experience of anxiety.
- Show empathy and understanding for your child’s symptoms. Avoid punishing them for symptoms of anxiety.
- If your child has been diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder, you may wish to help them learn more about that disorder specifically.
- Help your child understand how anxiety may cause them to misinterpret situations. I have found it helpful to talk about how when we are anxious our brains can “trick us.” Children generally understand the concept of being tricked.
- Identify underlying thoughts contributing to the anxiety.
- Often times, there is at least one inaccurate or unhelpful thought that is contributing to a child’s anxiety. As adults, we may not immediately recognize the underlying thoughts contributing to a child’s anxiety and children are not always able to describe their thoughts to us. It is helpful to try to envision anxiety provoking situations from the perspective of a child. If you are struggling with this, I suggest checking out some of Natasha Daniels’ work. She does an amazing job of exploring how a parent and an anxious child view the same situation.
- Understanding the underlying thoughts contributing to anxiety may help you identify the best approach in helping your children manage their anxiety.
- Avoid telling a child that their thoughts are wrong. Help the child explore the accuracy of their own thinking. Often with supportive exploration children are able to recognize the inaccurate thought and replace it with a more helpful thought.
- Don’t be afraid to get creative in helping your child explore their anxious thoughts. These previous posts may be of help: Thinking Outside of the Box: Creative Ways to Help Children Express their Emotions (Part One and Part Two)
- Help your child identify positive thoughts/mantras they can use when they feel anxious.
- Explore calming strategies.
- It is key to experiment to find strategies that are effective for each individual child.
- Practice calming strategies when your child is not anxious, so that he/she feels more confident in implementing them when needed.
- Sample calming strategies include; deep breathing, positive self talk, listening to calming music, visualization, muscle relaxation. If you are looking for additional ideas, I suggest reviewing the post called Effective Coping Strategies for Children and Teens.
We all encounter anxiety and some people experience it a more than others. Working with your children on the three concepts outlined in this post will help them more successfully navigate anxiety.
If you are in the Eagan, Minnesota area and need extra support in addressing anxiety that your child is experiencing, please check out my counseling services or see if an upcoming workshop may fit your needs.
P.S. As I was scrolling through images trying to figure out which was best for this post, I came across this post from when we visited Sandia Peak. It seemed like a fitting image for a post on anxiety. I have a strong fear of heights and have had to put my own skills at managing anxiety to the test when we visit beautiful (and high) places like this.