The more we learn about mental health and the way it affects our brains and lives, the more we realize that mental health issues can impact our children and their lives, too. Just like adults, each child is different – each with their own minds, emotions, and wiring. One general way of life can’t work for every adult, and it definitely cannot work for every child.
Anxiety in children is more common than we might actually realize. Of course, a certain amount of anxiety in young children is to be expected. Everything in the world is new to them, and they’re often experiencing things for the first time nearly every day. It’s understandable that they’re sometimes nervous or worried, but the key word there is “sometimes.”
“Some degree of worry or anxiety is typical in young kids, particularly in new situations or at times of transitions,” says Nina Kaiser, a child and family psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in treating anxiety disorders in kids and teenagers. “However, it’s worth consulting with an expert if anxiety is frequent, persistent over time, and/or impairing with your child’s daily home or school life.”
If your child avoids things they might otherwise enjoy or has trouble eating, sleeping, or is constantly worrying, it might be time to take a closer look. If you think your children might be struggling with anxiety, here are some things you might see and ways you can support your kids as they travel through these big emotions. Once you know what anxiety might look like, consider sharing signs you see with your child’s doctor. They can help you with the next steps.
What Does Anxiety in Kids Look Like?
“Anxiety in childhood can take many forms,” notes Kaiser. “Some anxious kids become loudly tearful, others become quiet or shut down, others may have unexplained headaches or stomachaches, and still others may become irritable or explosive at times that they are feeling tense.” It’s important to remember that kids don’t always know what they’re feeling or how to express it, so behavior you might be annoyed by (whining, anyone?) might actually have a root in a deeper cause. If they can’t tell you that they are worried or why they are nervous, they use words like “uncomfortable,” or “I don’t want to.”
“You want to look at the intensity and the duration of the behavior,” adds Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D. and child psychologist in New York City. “If a child has an extreme, intense reaction that lasts a long time, that is a sign of a more serious anxiety issue.” For example, Cohen notes, most kids get teary on the first day of school. This emotional experience of fear of separation is expected. However, if a child’s anxiety continues and can’t be soothed, this is a sign your child could be experiencing clinical levels of anxiety, she says.
And, if your little one is experiencing anxiety, there’s a good chance that you may struggle with anxiety, as well. In fact, “many studies show a familial component to anxiety issues,” says The Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member and associate professor Jennifer Jipson, Ph.D. “Situations in which both parents and children are prone to anxiety are common, and it’s vital to be aware of this as parents are better able to intentionally influence the emotional climate of the family than children.”
There are several types of anxiety disorders, which sometimes co-occur, but are different in terms of their root cause of fear or anxiety. Dr. Katie Davis, Psy.D and pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City, shares with us a few major types that are commonly seen in children:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder: This is characterized as chronic and exaggerated worry, even when there is nothing to provoke it.
- Panic Disorder: This is more seen as unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear. Panic Disorder often shows physical symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or frequent stomach aches.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: This is marked by fear and avoidance of social situations.
- Specific Phobias: These are marked by fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation (e.g. flying, heights, animals, blood).
- Separation Anxiety Disorder: This is when a child shows excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or from caregivers.
If you think any of these applies to your child, be sure to talk to your child’s doctor about the best next steps for them.
“Anxiety disorders are highly treatable,” says Davis. “But without treatment, children with anxiety disorders may experience social isolation, academic underperformance, and limited participation in leisure activities.” Therapists are trained not only to help children cope with anxiety themselves, but also to support parents of children with anxiety and arm them with strategies to generalize treatment effects at home and in school.
How Can Parents Support Children With Anxiety?
While you consult your pediatrician and mental health professional about your child’s anxiety, there are things you can do to help support them at home. Treatment is not about getting rid of your child’s anxiety, but rather, teaching them to manage it so they can learn how to live their lives joyfully.
Model appropriate emotional language
“Parents of children of any age can model how to talk about anxiety and emotions as a means of normalizing these conversations and familiarizing kids with language related to emotions,” says Kaiser. If they are better able to express what they are feeling, you’ll be able to provide more accurate emotional support.
Normalize their emotions
“Reflect on what they are feeling and reassure them that it is okay to feel that way,” says Cohen. “Explain that this is a normal feeling. Anxiety is part of life and the feeling will pass.” This will help to reduce the amount of shame or judgment they may feel surrounding their own emotions.
Rephrase your language
“Using less anxious vocabulary to describe things or events can make them seem more manageable,” explains Dr. Wendela Whitcomb Marsh, school and educational psychologist. “Rather than a “horrible loud racket,” call it an “unexpected noise” or “surprising sound.” An insect or spider isn’t “scary,” it’s “scientific” or “interesting.'” After something happens, rather than saying, “That was scary!” say, “That was unexpected!” If they tell you they were scared, tell them, “You were brave!” It can make all the difference.
“If parents can make connections to possible relationships between different events/situations and their child’s behavior/emotional reactions, they will be better able to address anxiety-provoking situations proactively with their kids,” continues Kaiser.
Teach breathing strategies and meditation
Practicing these together is great for the whole family. If you are a meditative-beginning, try kid-friendly apps like Breathe, Think Do Sesame, and DreamyKids — they teach both mindfulness and self-control.
Encourage critical thinking
This is more applicable for older kids, but you can start planting the seeds for critical thinking in younger kids, as well. “Parents can teach older children the critical distinction between thoughts and facts — that not everything that we think is true,” explains Kaiser. “We have to be scientists or detectives about our thoughts in order to figure out if those thoughts are helpful, truthful, and worth buying into.”
Share stories of bravery
“Sharing stories of times you experienced anxiety and how you handled it continues to show the child that they are not alone in their feelings and that they can handle what they are going through,” notes Cohen.
Support them, but don’t save them
“Avoiding potentially anxiety-provoking situations (i.e. telling them they don’t have to participate in an event) doesn’t give children opportunities to develop and practice skills for coping with anxiety,” says Jipson.
Do encourage your children to participate
Age-appropriate activities that involve acceptable levels of risk are a reasonable expectation, even when children may be somewhat hesitant to do so. Show your children that you believe they are competent by not hovering (this can unintentionally model fears to kids).
Be aware of your own anxiety
“Think about the impact that being anxious has had on your own life. Commit to reducing your own anxiety by taking reasonable action to minimize actual risks (be vigilant around water, put gates on steep staircases) while also gaining skills (self-awareness, mindfulness, breathing exercises) to manage your own stress response to low-risk activities,” Jipson encourages. After all, our kids take our cues from us.