Recognizing and Addressing Common Childhood Anxiety

Father talking to daughter about anxiety.

Anxiety Disorders in Children

In recent years, the rates of children with anxiety have significantly increased. In fact, a comprehensive study indicated that over 20 percent of children worldwide have symptoms of anxiety, making it the top health concern in children. Is your child among this number? How do you know if your child has anxiety, and how can you help?

Does Your Child Have Anxiety?

All children have seemingly irrational fears from time to time, like being afraid of the dark or of their parents leaving. However, these fears don’t generally impede their ability to sleep, engage in activities, go to school, or make friends. There are some warning signs that your child’s anxiety is becoming a concern, including:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Concentration issues
  • Complaints of head or stomach issues
  • Seeming on edge or overly fatigues
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of certain activities

Be aware that children show anxiety differently than adults do. Anxiety in children often involves physical complaints like stomach aches or headaches, or may look more like anger and irritability. Young children may not have the words to describe their anxious thoughts, and older children may recognize the irrational nature of their worries but may not be able to control their anxiety.

What Causes Anxiety in Children?

Here’s the good news: it’s not your parenting. Research indicates that only four percent of childhood anxiety is related to parenting. This means that it is unlikely that anything you did or did not do has caused your child to be anxious. Often, anxiety is the result of temperament or genetic predisposition, though some children develop anxiety as a result of abuse, trauma, or bullying.

How to Help Your Anxious Child

Fortunately, you can help your child deal with anxiety. First, be careful not to label thoughts, emotions, and experiences as good or bad. Children who hear that their thoughts are bad will internalize this and begin to believe that they themselves are bad. Don’t minimize what they’re experiencing or tell them to get over it. Instead, meet your anxious child with empathy, compassion, and kindness, and try some of the following practices, recommended by experts, to help ease anxiety.

  • Identify triggers. By recognizing the causes of anxiety for your child, you can get a better handle on it and begin to help the child cope.
  • Remove the shame. Talk to your child about anxiety, and how it is there to protect them, but sometimes their brains have false alarms. Explain that everyone thinks there is danger sometimes when they are really safe, and give an example of when it happened to you.
  • Don’t accommodate. It’s understandable for parents to want to help a child avoid the things that cause anxiety. Examples of this would be speaking for a shy child or crossing the street to avoid dogs if your child has a fear of dogs. However, protecting your child from anxiety-provoking events prevents the child from developing coping skills. It also reinforces the fear and keeps the child dependent on parents.
  • Validate and empathize. Don’t ignore or invalidate anxiety, but acknowledge that the feeling is real and difficult, even if the fear is irrational. You can do this by saying things like, “I can tell that was scary for you.”
  • Help your children face fears. Once you have validated the child’s anxiety, help him or her to gradually and gently face these fears. You can encourage your child by saying things like, “I know this makes you feel nervous, but I also know you can handle it.” Challenge unhelpful thinking, identifying your child’s negative thoughts and suggesting ways to think about the situation differently. Once you help them learn to look at things differently, children will be better able to come to conclusions that lead to more realistic, helpful thoughts.
  • Give encouragement and praise. Whenever your child successfully faces a fear, or even takes a baby step towards coping with an anxious situation, offer reassurance and praise. Don’t invalidate it with a comment like, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” but acknowledge that the situation caused the child anxiety, rewarding success in coping with something difficult.
  • Help your children develop tolerance of uncertainty. Often, people try to avoid anxiety by ridding their environment of uncertainty as much as possible. A better tactic is to teach children to face uncertainty and learn to tolerate it. You can do this by trying to things, even if the child feels nervous, or changing the order of a routine.
  • Help build coping skills. Work with your child to help find ways to manage anxiety. Assign chores to help your child build confidence and offer opportunities to face challenges. Help your child develop the skill of breaking down tasks into manageable steps so that they seem less daunting. Role play specific situations your child is feeling anxious about, to help prepare. Teach deep breathing techniques, helping your child take deep breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth, to help with calm and focus.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. If your child’s anxiety is interfering with important functions, and the strategies you are using to manage it do not seem to be helping, or the anxiety seems to be getting worse, talk to your pediatrician or school counselor and ask for a referral to a mental health professional. Therapy is often effective in helping children cope with anxiety.

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