eNewsletter - Aug 2023
Childhood Anxiety: Tips for Parents and Coping Skills for Kids
By: Laura Koehler, Psy.D.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the inability to outgrow typical childhood worries or fears may indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. These may include things like separation anxiety, phobias or fears of certain things, social anxiety about school or places where people are present, or worries or intense fears with unexpected physical symptoms — like a pounding heart or rapid breathing — that come with panic disorder.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children.
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can vary, but may include fear or worry, irritability or anger. Anxiety can cause trouble sleeping, as well as stomach aches, fatigue and headaches. While all children may normally feel these things from time to time, severe and/or frequent symptoms can negatively impact a child’s and family’s life.
Tips for Parents: Having a child with anxiety of any kind can be challenging, but there are things parents can do to keep anxiety to a minimum and better deal with it when it does surface.
- Don’t ignore or avoid anxiety, recognize it. Steering clear of stressors or triggers might seem like a good plan, but facing them allows kids to overcome feats and focus on tolerance and management. It’s okay to allow a child to feel their fears, put a name to them and, in turn, show them they can survive those fears.
- Keep anticipatory times brief. Worrying about something that could happen is often far worse than experiencing the thing itself. Along those lines, parents can reduce the time a child spends actively anticipating something. For instance, if a child needs a shot and is fearful, instead of prepping them hours beforehand, wait until you’ve arrived at the doctor’s office.
- When they’re anxious, don’t remove the child from the situation. Instead, validate what the child is experiencing and ensure that they will survive the crisis. While parents can’t guarantee nothing bad will ever happen, they can help the child learn that even when they’re afraid, they can still participate in the feared activities, and hopefully feel less afraid over time.
- Show empathy without agreeing with fears. Instead of starting with “Are you worried…” try “How are you feeling about…” This approach avoids encouraging kids to be anxious when they may not be feeling that way and helps them learn to understand and articulate different emotions. Even if they’re feeling fear, calmly letting them know that they’ll get through this with assistance can help.
- Model good anxiety management. Even parents feel anxious at times and often, kids are watching how they manage these times. At the end of the day, showing that anxiety is normal and manageable even later in life is setting a great example for kids to follow.
Skills for Kids: Depending on the age of a child with anxiety, the following strategies can be tailored for younger kids or adolescents. All of them involve encouraging a peaceful state of mind when thoughts and worries seem out of control.
- Change the focus. Engage the mind in thinking of things that make you feel good, like a favorite place or trying to remember the words to a song you love, can do wonders in diverting anxiety. Older children might take this further by practicing “grounding,” which involves naming things in their presence that they can see, feel, hear, smell and touch, such as holding ice cubes or drinking an ice-cold glass of water.
- Just breathe. Focusing on taking some breaths can lower heart rate and help relax muscles, keeping the body from staying in fight or flight mode. Younger kids may benefit from being encouraged to breathe in like they’re smelling a flower and out like they’re blowing out birthday candles, or to blow bubbles to help regulate their breathing.
- Create a calm spot. Certain environments can encourage peaceful feelings, whether someone suffers from anxiety or not. Kids might create a cozy nook in a favorite room or a safe and beautiful outdoor spot where they go to help regain calmness.
- Journal feelings. Whether you write in a notebook or your Notes app on your phone, jotting down anxious feelings is an easy way to process thoughts and begin problem solving. Often, just writing something down or drawing — at any age — may be easier than talking about it and helps a person see a situation differently.
- Create a bedtime ritual to encourage restful nights. Bedtime worries can prevent a good night’s sleep, so addressing them directly can help. Once a parent knows what the fear is — the dark, monsters, etc. — take steps to mitigate it together. Maybe you’ll rearrange the room to sleep in a brighter spot or move night lights into spaces that feel scary. Transitional objects, like stuffed animals or even mom’s or dad’s sweatshirt can help create a comforting environment that a child can turn to for comfort time and again.
Find more resources. Linden Oaks Behavioral Health’s new Child and Parent Anxiety Program provides group therapy for children in third, fourth or fifth grade struggling with school anxiety. Parents attend the first hour of the 3-week sessions that meet Monday through Friday from 8 - 11 am. To learn more or enroll, please call 630-305-5027 or visit our website.