Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It is a crucial survival instinct in evolution and helped individuals survive. Fear of the dark, insects, storms, blood, lightning, water or even sounds can trigger anxiety in children. Other, often stronger, triggers are more emotional, including the first day somewhere new, a doctor’s visit, school tests, or exams. But these triggers and the anxiety that comes with them are usually a phase, a part of growing up. Research led by Katja Beesdo-Baum, a Professor of Behavioral Epidemiology, defines anxiety as the brain’s response to danger, stimuli that a person will actively attempt to avoid. As children get more familiar with change and environments, the anxiety often subsides.
The problem is when anxiety becomes frequent, severe, and persistent, preventing the child from functioning. Dealing with your own parental anxiety can be delicate. Unknowingly, parents can sometimes play a part in turning a fleeting fear into a permanent one. In a bid to help, a parent might remove anxiety triggers and avoid everything that makes the child anxious. The result is an indirect reinforcement of the child’s fears and an empowering of their triggers.
Types of Anxiety in Children
The following are some of the anxieties that can affect children. To know how to help your child, the first step is to characterize what sort of anxiety they have.
- Specific phobia. This is a fear of physical things that can be named—for example, thunder, darkness, needles, spiders, or costumes. A phobia is a more intense version of fear. Usually, the child feels terrified at the sight of an object and tries to hide from it. Merely approaching a place where the child anticipates that object’s presence can put him or her in an anxious state. Comforting a child with a specific phobia can be difficult.
- Generalized anxiety. As the name implies, this anxiety arises from various sources, everyday things children worry about. Things like making mistakes, failing, recess, lunchtime, homework, and tests. However, a child with generalized anxiety will worry about things parents might never expect them to worry about. Examples include the death of a pet or a loved one, the future, war on television, an illness, or the weather. This affects the child’s concentration, given that they’re constantly worrying about one thing or the other. There are things you can do to improve your child’s concentration.
- Social phobia. With social phobia, children worry so much about what others will think or say. Will they think I’m weird? Will they think my shoes are ugly? What about my dress? They even worry about what others think of their parents or siblings. Their fear of embarrassment is so deep that they do everything they can to avoid drawing attention to themself. This can get to a point where they don’t want to go to school anymore. If you think that your child is struggling to make friends we have more advice here.
- Separation anxiety. Children struggle with this kind of anxiety on the brink of separating from their parents. Usually, children outgrow this and get used to the babysitter. However, some children don’t. They become very clingy as they get older. If it gets to that point, it’s referred to as separation anxiety disorder. It can lead in older life to a fear of independence and being away from home. This can mean they miss out or struggle with further education and experiences. Here we discuss for steps to independence.
Signs of Children With Anxiety
Anxiety is quite specific and different from nerves. Nerves are minor and often tinged with excitement. Anxiety is deliberating and a very negative emotion. Below are some signs of anxiety to look out for.
- Frequent stomach aches and generally feeling unwell.
- Not sleeping well.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Being clingy.
- Fidgety or tense.
- Constant worrying.
- Not eating properly.
- Frequent outbursts.
- Easily angry or irritable.
- Sweating or fatigue.
- Shaking or rapid heart rate.
- Reluctance to go to school.
How to Help a Child With Anxiety
It can be disheartening when your child has anxiety and you don’t know how to help them. Below are a few pointers on how you can help a child with anxiety.
- Watch out for physical signs. Generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and social phobia affect 20% of children and adolescents. Still, a lot goes unrecognized. The signs of anxiety are not always obvious or clear-cut. Children have a combination of different reactions. That’s why you should pay very close attention to your child so that you can pick up some of these combinations. Does your child have specific reactions when they approach particular places? Do they start vomiting or feel generally unwell at the start of every new week? Do they freeze, get teary, or clammy at specific points? Recognizing the signs can make all the difference.
- Help them calm down. Trying to reason with an anxious child in full panic mode isn’t going to be helpful. At that moment, the child is unreachable. Their body is most likely experiencing what’s called a “flight-freeze-fight” response. So you need to get them to calm down. Do this by urging them to take slow, regular breaths through their nose.
- Validate their feelings but don’t empower them. When your child is feeling anxious, brushing their feelings aside or downplaying them won’t help. Telling them to suck it up won’t help either, even if the source of their anxiety seems ridiculous to you. This will only make your child feel unheard. But on the other hand, you also don’t want to empower their fears. So when you speak to them, you want to find a balance between validation and empowerment. For instance, if your child refuses to go to the park because there are too many kids there, you might say, “I know how you feel, and it’s okay to be afraid. I’m here to help you, and we’ll get through this.”
- Help them face their fears. No parent wants to see their child in distress. For this reason, parents may try to shield their children from their fears. On the surface, it makes sense just to remove anything that triggers anxiety. It is exhausting to deal with the issues that anxiety can cause. But that’s counterproductive because it practically empowers those fears. It indirectly tells the child that there are reasons to be afraid of that thing or situation. It will be hard watching your child go through it. But you have to try. It is also essential to find a balance, so you don’t push them too hard. Experts go the same route during treatment. Dr. Mona Potter, medical director of McLean’s Child and Adolescent Outpatient Services, outlined some examples of their treatment method. “For example, we might encourage children to practice ‘detective thinking’ to catch, check, and change anxious thoughts,” she says. “We also encourage them to approach, rather than avoid, anxiety-provoking triggers.”
- Ask open-ended questions. As a parent with an anxious child, how you pick your words, your body language, and the tone of your voice all matter. So when you sit down to talk to your child before a big day, stick to open-ended questions. Don’t say, “Are you worried about going to school in the morning?” Instead, just say, “How are you feeling about going to school tomorrow?”
- Model ways of dealing with anxiety. It’s helpful for your child to see how you manage anxiety. You may not know it, and it may not feel like it, but your child is always watching. Modeling this for your child is about them seeing how you handle anxiety with calm. The point is not to keep it all in an attempt not to show any anxiety at all. There are no lessons in that.
- Shorten anticipatory time when possible. This may not always be possible because some triggers are recurrent, and your child is well aware of that. But for once-in-a-while activities like going to the park, you can reduce the anticipatory time. For instance, if your child has social anxiety, inform them of the family’s trip to the park an hour before instead of a day before. This way, your child doesn’t have to sit and battle with anxiety for too long.
Final Thoughts on Helping a Child With Anxiety
One of the struggles of parenting a child with anxiety is understanding the difference between normal anxiety and a full-blown disorder. Most children just need reassurance and gradual exposure to what is causing them anxiety as they become more confident. This distinction is crucial in knowing when to seek professional help, as younger children don’t have the vocabulary to explain their feelings. One way to know when to get help, says Dr. Krystal Lewis, is to ask yourself, “Are there things that the child really wants to do or needs to be doing, and they can’t do those things? If you feel you’re hitting a wall in terms of trying to get the child to do those things, that might be another indicator that potentially, you know, we should get some help.” Some people are more anxious than others. However, if we truly want our children to thrive when they leave home we want to make sure that they don’t fear becoming an adult. Although we might not want to admit it, how much are we putting our own anxieties on them?