This post first appeared on the Gainesville, FL Moms Blog here.
I remember the first time I felt anxious as a child. My cousin, who was a more mature peer, talked me into watching a movie called, “Arachnophobia.” Do you remember that 90’s thriller? It’s been almost 25 years, and I still do. What I remember the most was how I felt after watching that movie. For weeks, I was afraid to get in the shower, convinced that big, hairy spiders would attack me while I was the most vulnerable. I couldn’t sleep without blankets covering every part of my body, because I was sure spiders were lurking at the end of my bed waiting until I was fast asleep to make their move. I suddenly could not sleep without a light on, and I would scan the walls and floors of every room in search of one of those creepy crawlers. Even now, I can’t reach to turn on a lamp without imagining there is a spider waiting under the shade, ready to bite! So what happens when it’s your turn… when your kid has anxiety?
I know; this all seems so silly. As an adult, I know this. I can point out the irrationality of my thoughts and deal with the intrusiveness of them as they happen. I couldn’t always do that. In fact, I spent a great deal of my childhood scared over things my adult brain can now recognize as “harmless.”
See, that’s the thing with anxiety and children. They are being exposed to a wide variety of pictures, experiences, and senses. Sometimes this can just be too overwhelming for their underdeveloped brains to process and comprehend. What we as adults may consider insignificant, can be the cause of much anxiety and distress in a child.
Anxiety is also one of those things that isn’t “cut and dry,” meaning the signs and symptoms can vary from child to child, and they are not always obvious. There are some common symptoms that most children with anxiety demonstrate. I’ll elaborate on those below.
What is Anxiety?
The first step in helping your anxious child manage their anxiety is to help them understand exactly what anxiety is. In simple, kid-friendly terms, anxiety is our body’s response to a stressful event or situation.
Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes we can have anxiety over something fun, like going to Disney World. We might call this “excited.” This type of stress is good stress but can cause us to feel the same as the ‘bad’ stress. It’s important to help your child identify some real-life examples of both “good and bad,” anxiety. It’s helpful if you can throw in a few of your own real-life examples. Knowing that grown-ups feel the same way as kids do, can be particularly validating and helpful for young children.
We all experience anxiety to some degree, every single day. Remind your child that feeling anxious can be very appropriate in most situations and a normal part of everyday life. Most people only realize that they have anxiety when it becomes debilitating and prevents them from functioning in daily life.
What does anxiety look like in a child?
Now that we have some understanding of what anxiety is, how do you know if your child has anxiety? First, listen to everything they say. Really listen. Are they expressing any fears? Do they seem more emotional than normal? Are they expressing worries over things that are far beyond childhood? This is the first place where warning flags will be raised. Children will express how they feel if we are listening close enough. A lot of times, anxiety can be wrapped up into phrases such as:
- “I’m tired”
- “Can we go home?”
- “I don’t want to go _________.”
- “Please don’t leave me.”
- “I’m afraid of __________.”
- “What will happen to me if you die?”
Anxiety can go further than just words, and can manifest in behavior:
- Overly emotional over very small triggers
- Big, over the top reactions
- Sudden anger/irritability/acting out
- Complaining about stomach aches or headaches
- Physically avoiding a person, place, or situation
- Self-harm/self-deprecating statements can be made in some cases of anxiety
* The above statements are in no way intended to diagnose or treat anxiety. If you are concerned that your child is suffering from anxiety, please seek out the help from a professional.
What do I do?
If you discover that your child is suffering from anxiety, the good news is there is a lot you can do to help alleviate their discomfort. At the root of anxiety is fear, and for a child, that fear is so real, it has invaded their mind. Part of helping a child manage anxiety is helping them learn that they are in control of their thoughts and feelings. They have to believe that they are bigger than the fear.
- Be empathetic: Validate. Validate. This is the most important thing you can do for your child. They have to know that they are heard. They have to know that they are normal and that you still love them. Remember, the fear is REAL for them. Unlike adults, they don’t have the ability to rationalize. It’s easy for adults to quickly dismiss a child’s fear because we see it as insignificant. It’s not insignificant to the child. What might be good intentions, actually is harmful to a child. Instead of feeling safe and comforted, what they hear is, “you’re crazy. You’re fine. Nothing’s wrong.” At that point, the child can’t reconcile their fear with those words, and mistrust is born. Instead, validate and reassure the child that they are safe. That you are there to help them. Tell them that they must be so scared and that their fear is very real for them. Hug them, and don’t be afraid to use physical touch. Listen to their concerns, and don’t try to offer solutions.
- Build in mindfulness: Add mindfulness activities to your daily routines such as yoga, deep breathing, and meditation. Call attention to your child’s feelings as they happen, even in older children. Helping a child gain insight and self-awareness to how they are feeling can go a long way when managing difficult emotions such as anxiety, but can be powerful in shaping them to become great communicators and insulating them from future anxiety.
- Be proactive: As you learn about your child’s anxiety, be proactive about triggers. Help them to call attention to things that make them feel anxious, and the come up with a plan of what to do.
- Develop coping skills: The key to helping your child manage their anxiety is to ensure they have a wide variety of coping skills to implement should the occasion arise.
- Create a coping box and fill with stress balls, bubbles, stickers, slime, etc. When your child feels anxious, encourage your child to pick something from their coping box to help them calm down. Instructions
- Belly breathing: check out this blog for excellent tips on how to teach your child belly breaths.
- Counting: This is a super easy coping skill that can be done ANYWHERE! Encourage your child to count from 1 to 10, and then backward from 10 to 1. The trick is helping them say the numbers slower and slower until their breath is slowed and they are calm.
- Distraction: Sometimes all your kiddo needs is a little distraction. Try a hug, listen to a silly song, dance, color, or go for a walk. Irrational thinking can cause your brain to become stuck. Sometimes, we have to give it a little jumpstart.
- “Big problem or Little Problem?” This is a favorite in my house for my anxious kiddo. When I notice that she is becoming dysregulated or distressed, I’m able to ask her this question: “Is this a big problem or a little problem?” Big problems are things that are unsafe or out of our control. They are things that could hurt us or cause us harm. Little problems are things that are easily changed or fixed. They are things that are not harmful, and we can usually fix or change them. This is a skill that helps your child break out of the irrational thinking patterns. Suggest one of the above coping strategies to help decrease distress.
- Get help: Even with the best of intentions, sometimes these things are out of our control and realm of helping. If your child is very distressed and none of the suggestions seem to be helping, then it’s time to seek the help of a professional.