As the parent of a mildly anxious child, I know firsthand how hard it can be to parent an anxious child. You want to fix it for them, but you can’t. You want to tell them not to worry, but those are empty words when the world feels overwhelming. You read everything you can get your hands on, but it never seems quite right. It might make sense, but how will it help your kid?
I get it.
I also know that it’s easier for me than it is for other parents. Helping kids with anxiety is what I do best. I know the signs and red flags and I know how and when to intervene. I also know the process of helping a worrier worry less, including the fact that often the best strategy out there is time.
I get a lot of calls and messages about helping anxious children. In general, parents want to know how to help at home and what they can do to speed up the worry-less process. Here’s the thing: If your child’s anxiety interferes with normal daily living – as in your child can’t get to school, refuses to participate in previously loved activities, isn’t eating or sleeping normally (per your child’s usual eat/sleep habits, that is) or is suddenly withdrawing from peers and family, your child needs treatment. Now. Don’t wait. Anxiety has a way of growing in size fairly quickly and it can impact the whole family.
If you’re not there yet – if you’re worried about your worrier but not sure that therapy is necessary, consider these ten things about kids with anxiety:
They can’t “just stop worrying”.
Anxious kids worry for a variety of reasons. For younger kids, separation is a big issue. For older kids, real world issues (like diseases, natural disasters or violence) can trigger anxiety. Whatever the cause of your child’s anxiety, telling your child not to worry about something isn’t useful. Your child is already worrying. Those words hold little to no value.
When we tell kids to just stop worrying, they feel like they’re doing something wrong. They’re not. It’s how their brains are wired.
It’s hard to sleep when you’re anxious.
Believe me, I get it. Sometimes when you finally reach the end of a long day, you just want everyone to go to sleep without an issue. The problem is that anxiety tends to spike at night. When kids finally slow down enough to rest their bodies, their brains tend to kick into overdrive. All those worries that they tried to stuff during the school day? Those feel huge!
They need help learning to calm their anxious thought cycles at night. Try a worry box. Consider practicing mindfulness together or using guided relaxation.
Little things feel very big.
You might think that your child’s worries are small in size. What’s a timed test when there are things like terrorism in this world? Your child’s triggers feel huge to your child. Resist the urge to minimize your child’s triggers and simply listen and empathize, instead.
Visuals help. A lot.
Children who struggle with anxiety tend to have anticipatory anxiety. They worry about what comes next. You might think that your child has the daily schedule down, but worriers tend to think outside the box when it comes to worrying – they experience intrusive thoughts (ones that alert them to terrible possibilities – like missing the bus, failing a test or car accidents).
Irrational thoughts play a significant role in anxiety. Visuals help kids boss back those intrusive, and often irrational, thoughts. Make posters for the morning routine, school and the evening routine. Keep a wall calendar up to date with upcoming events.
Breaking down tasks is essential.
Worriers tend to get easily overwhelmed by big tasks (like a long homework packet). Teach your anxious child to break down tasks into manageable pieces. Instead of tacking a list of four homework assignments at once, for example, pull out one assignment and then take a break. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to empowering an anxious child to take control of his anxiety.
They can worry themselves sick.
Sometimes anxious kids talk about their worries constantly. Sometimes they internalize their emotions. Always keep a close eye on the quiet ones – they might actually be worrying themselves into a cold.
Sleep disruption and changes in eating habits tend to go hand-in-hand with anxiety in children. When you’re not eating and sleeping properly and you’re under stress, you’re at risk of getting sick.
Every new behavior is a clue.
Life seems to be on fast forward these days. Kids and parents are highly busy and sometimes parents miss the clues that point to anxiety. Changes in behavior should always be noted when it comes to young children. If a very social child suddenly avoids play dates and going to the park, you know something is amiss. But what about smaller clues? Watch for nail biting, hair twirling, regressed behavior, frequent nightmares, school avoidance, negative statements (I can’t, I hate, I always…) and sticking closer to mom or dad than usual.
Anticipation is emotionally exhausting.
If your anxious child seems tired most of the time, it’s because she is. Anticipating bad things and worrying about when disaster might strike is emotionally exhausting. Anxious children have a tendency to worry on the inside without giving it away to the adults in the room. It’s very tiring to exist in a perpetual state of worry. Watch for fatigue and factor in downtime.
It’s hard to choose when you worry about outcomes.
Anxious children have a very difficult time making decisions. Parents often confide in me that it’s very frustrating when the child can’t even choose between ice cream flavors. What might seem like a simple choice to you might actually be very hard for your anxious child.
Practice patience and help your child consider pros and cons.
Anxious kids need comfort.
When you have an anxious child, handle with care. They don’t need toughening up. They don’t need to learn to shake it off. They definitely don’t need to just get through it.
Anxious kids need empathy, comfort and understanding. They need support at home, at school and out in the world. They will learn to cope with their anxiety, but it won’t happen overnight. They need you now so that they won’t need you so much later on.
3 Things you can do right now to help confront anxiety!
Name it and explain it.
Use the word “anxiety”. You don’t need to hide it or sugarcoat it. There’s nothing wrong with having anxiety. In fact, some anxiety is healthy. Without worry, you might run right in front of a car without even looking!
Tell your child that the worry center in her brain, the amygdala, has a heightened response. It’s job is to switch on when it senses danger – that’s what helps us make quick decisions to get out of a dangerous situation. In an anxious child, the worry center can overestimate danger and send alert signals when it doesn’t need to. In anxious kids, the worry brain crowds out the happy brain and that causes a build up of stress.
Try this worry brain activity at home to help your child understand it better.
Learning the art of relaxation breathing is the best first step for helping a worrier. Mindfulness programs and guided relaxation programs are great for teaching this important skill, but you can start with a little rainbow breathing.
Ask your child to sit comfortably and breathe in for a count of four, hold for three and breathe out for four. Count out loud to help your child slow his breathing. Now have your child close his eyes and breathe all of the colors of the rainbow while visualizing each color as it appears.
Teaching kids to talk back to their worry brains is huge. It helps them take control of their intrusive thoughts. It does take time and practice.
Ask your child to name the thoughts that trigger his worry center. Together, make a list of positive counter statements to boss back. If the worry is, “I’m terrible at math”, the counter statement might be, “I can ask for help when I need it.”
Practice regularly for best results.
For more great strategies to help your child work through childhood stress and anxiety, pick up your copy of The Happy Kid Handbook!