It’s not uncommon for parents to encounter anxiety in their children. All of us suffer from some level of anxiety at some point in our lives. In fact, it’s a natural reaction to unpredictable or frightening circumstances. Anxiety is part of our basic survival instinct. It only becomes a problem—for adults or children—when it becomes excessive, persistent or irrational.
At least one in eight children suffers from this sort of ‘problem anxiety’, and girls are affected more often than boys. If you’re a parent, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to run into childhood anxiety at some point. Anxiety in children isn’t always obvious, so some of the things to look for are a child who is overly clingy or shy, complains of stomachaches, or has trouble sleeping. Children with anxiety can also be more impulsive and display a lack of social skills because they have such difficulty managing their emotions.
Importance of Identifying Childhood Anxiety
Anxiety in children is often undiagnosed, despite being one of their most common health and wellness concerns. This is, in part, because not only does anxiety present like a lot of other issues, as it does with adults, children often can’t express what’s happening for them. So, a child with ongoing stomach issues is written off as ‘just a complainer’, or impulsive behavior at school turns into a question of ADHD, rather than an exploration of an underlying emotional issue.
One of the great tragedies in this lack of attention on the part of adults and caretakers is that, left unidentified—and, by association, untreated—anxiety can profoundly interfere with a child’s social development, impact school success and lead to other, more complicated psychosocial concerns later in life. The reality is childhood anxiety doesn’t just go away, and there are many effective, accessible strategies and treatments available.
Signs of Anxiety in Your Child
As a parent, you are the most effective advocate for your child in recognizing and accessing treatment for childhood anxiety. It’s true the caregivers, coaches and teachers who surround your child can also be of great benefit, if they are vigilant. You, however, are in a unique position to see your child in a consistent social environment, interacting with the same people, on a daily basis. If you’re seeing impulsivity, a lack of age-appropriate social skills, shyness or worry that is much more than other children around the same age, it may time to take some steps.
Steps and Tools to Help With Childhood Anxiety
First, you might want to look at you and your partner. If either one or both of you struggle with anxiety, your child is much more likely to develop it. Research shows that the development of childhood anxiety stems from a combination of genetic predisposition—like a high startle response—and modelling on the part of parents, particularly during early child-rearing. The modelling piece here is most important. If your child sees you using positive coping skills to manage your anxiety, not only will they feel less stigmatized by the way they feel, you will be teaching them by example.
Another thing to consider is not accommodating your child’s anxiety or fears. Children struggling with anxiety are much more likely to seek constant reassurance from caretakers, parents and other adults. While, for you, it may seem like a given to want to calm your child, that choice can actual have the opposite effect. The more your child learns to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, the less likely they will be to confront their fears. This just perpetuates—and even amplifies—the cycle and the expectation.
It may seem like a hard thing to do, but the more you allow your anxious child to use positive coping skills in the face of their fears, the higher the likelihood they will overcome their anxiety. Now, that doesn’t mean throwing a kid who’s afraid of the water into the deep end of the pool. It means slowly bringing them into the shallow end, until they become increasingly more comfortable.
One of the biggest struggles for anyone dealing with emotional distress is separating themselves from their feelings. It’s important for you to help your child understand the anxiety they are experiencing doesn’t define them, that they are not their anxiety. Talking about anxiety with your child will help them understand it’s not something wrong with them, but a common experience. When you do this, it is sometimes helpful to have your child visualize their anxiety as a separate entity—maybe even give it a name. By personifying your child’s anxiety, it gives them sense of power and control. It also provides caregivers, family, teachers and other important people in your child’s life a point of reference to further support them.
Having tools to manage their anxiety will empower your child and help them feel less like a victim. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga poses and even mindfulness meditation can be powerful defenses against their feelings of overwhelm.If your child’s anxiety isn’t diminished by using these more organic techniques, you might want to seek out the help of a therapist. Play therapy is especially effective for dealing with childhood anxiety, using creative approaches to manage your child’s fears, building positive coping skills in a fun and interactive way.
Circling back, it’s important for you to keep in mind that children learn best by example. If you take an active role in helping your child manage their anxiety, even if there is a therapist involved in the work, your modelling of positive self-care can have an enormous positive influence on them.
If any of this is sounding familiar to you, and you have concerns about your child, we, at Amy Wine Counseling Center, offer an opportunity for you and your child to explore the feelings and emotions they are struggling with. Using talk and play therapy, in a safe, supportive environment, they can develop tools to help them better manage their anxiety. Feel free to contact us here or call us at 832-421-8714.