Have you ever felt anxious about a work deadline? Nervous while awaiting medical results? Apprehensive about speaking in front of a crowd? If you’re like most people, there are times when you feel worried and some anxiety is just a part of life. So how do you know if your child has too much anxiety? What’s normal? What's unhealthy? And if your child is anxious, how do you help him or her learn to cope?
Here’s some information I compiled along with Erin Bonsall, LPC, who is the talented therapist at Robinhood Pediatrics, to help all parents deal with anxiety in their children.
What is anxiety?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a diagnosis of anxiety is the presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least six months and is clearly excessive. Excessive worry means worrying even when there is nothing wrong or in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual risk. In children, it is usually about their performance (at school, on a sports team, etc.)
What are typical fears?
Separation anxiety and stranger anxiety are very normal in younger children and typically subside by kindergarten. Smaller children are often afraid of storms and loud noises. Elementary school-aged children can be afraid of dogs, fires, storms, burglars, something happening to their parents, or to themselves.
What are signs of anxiety?
- Edginess or restlessness
- Tiring easily - more fatigued than usual
- Impaired concentration or feeling as though the mind goes blank
- Irritability (which may or may not be observable to others)
- Increased muscle aches or soreness
- Difficulty sleeping (due to trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, restlessness at night, or unsatisfying sleep)
- Stomach discomfort
Where does anxiety come from?
- Genetics - like other traits, anxiety can be passed down to your children
- Temperament - a child’s personality can indicate how well he or she deals with change and anxiety. We even see this in newborns!
- Stressful events
- Events like car accidents, divorce, or death can make children anxious and cause them to regress in order to heal.
- We also see anxiety in children during a transition like moving, change of schools, or even a change in teacher and/or classroom.
- Parental factors
- “Helicopter” parents and overprotective parents tend to reinforce anxiety. When parents hover or micromanage, the message that our children receive is “The world is scary! You can’t handle it on your own!” Independence and autonomy are the greatest gifts to a child’s confidence and resilience.
- Overscheduling and overcommitment breed an anxious environment. When the household is running from one thing to the next without time to breathe, it is not a surprise a child (or parent!) will experience anxiety. Make sure your family has downtime - and gasp! Maybe even away from screens!
Obviously, all children will encounter curveballs that life throws at us and cannot be expected to handle them perfectly. Adults can’t even do that. It’s important to provide a level of grace for your child if he or she is going through a transition like a new school, new experience, or moving. The best thing you can do is provide a safe space for them to talk through their anxious feelings but also provide support and tools to cope so that the next time a curveball is thrown their way, they know what to do.
What are “red flags”? When do I know my child’s anxiety might be headed in an unhealthy direction?
- “The Avoider” - Does your child not want to go to school every day? Suffer from an upset stomach each day before school but miraculously pop out of the bed with energy on Saturdays and Sundays? Are they avoiding something that they used to enjoy doing?
- Out of proportion worry - “If I fail that bio test on Friday, I’ll never get into college! I’ll never get a good job! I’ll be a failure!”
- Physical symptoms - Stomachaches and/or headaches; excessive fatigue or trouble sleeping
- Can’t reason with them with logical explanation
- Duration - Anxious behavior lasting more than six months
If you see these “red flags” or if you, as a parent, feel your child’s anxiety is extreme, please talk to teachers, pediatricians, and/or counselors. Talk about ways the adults in your child’s life can work together to support the child. We are a team!
Different ways children worry:
Ways to cope
- Gratitude can be a mighty weapon against anxiety!
- I give beaded bracelets to some of my female students suffering from anxiety. I encourage them to ground themselves by touching each bead on the bracelet and claiming something they are grateful for with each bead until their anxiety subsides.
- I give smooth stones to other students to keep in their pocket to touch and name things they are grateful for. It’s discrete and can be done in class or at home!
- Gratitude journals can also be very helpful.
- Thought-stopping - think of anxiety like a train ready to leave the station and stop it before it leaves. You want to stop it before it gets too much speed and too much power. Once you say “STOP!” to that thought, train yourself to redirect your thoughts to a more positive thought, a realistic truth (“I know that bio test doesn’t define my future”) or a personal mantra (“My anxiety does not control me”).
- BREATHE - take deep breaths! There is great power in a good, deep breath from the belly. I tell the kids to pretend that there is a balloon attached to their belly button and they have to blow it up (inhale) and watch it deflate (exhale). Blowing bubbles or gum is also a good way to calm down and show younger kids the power of a breath.
- Music - create a calming playlist
- “Take 5” - count to five by tracing your hand or touching your fingers to calm down
- Acknowledge anxiety and talk about it - “I can tell you are anxious. Do you want me to help you?”
- Respect and validate feelings
- The goal is not to eliminate anxiety but help a child manage it
- “Calm down spot” in home and classrooms - create a place with pillows and objects to help de-stress (calm down jars, stress balls)
- Find a common transitional object for separation anxiety - like matching rocks or necklaces that you and your child can touch and think of each other when you are away
- Don’t avoid things that make your child anxious
- Model healthy coping for your own anxiety! How they see you react is how they think they should react.
- Reward coping behaviors! - “I see that you took some deep breaths instead of yelling or throwing that pencil. I’m really proud of you!”
- Create opportunities for your child to be brave.
- Extinguish excessive anxious behavior by not responding to it.
- Allow for downtime - too many activities or commitments perpetuate anxiety
- Have older children journal or add notes in their phone about what is bothering them, how they can cope, and what they are grateful for
- Help your child see the connection between physical pain and anxiety - how butterflies are different than a regular stomachache.
- Sleep - make sure your child is getting enough sleep!
- Diet - eating healthy food is especially important during stressful times
- Time management -
- Help your child map out a calendar to do tasks one at a time. Anticipate stressful times and prepare for them
- My dad used to always tell me, “Chop the wood that’s in front of you.” So a visual I give to my students during stressful or busy times: don’t picture having to cut down an entire forest. Chop the wood that’s in front of you! Just focus on one tree at a time. Just take one assignment at a time, then move onto the next one. Before you know it, you’ve cut down the forest. Anyone could get overwhelmed if they pictured everything they had to do. Just focus on one tree at a time and then onto the next!
Unhealthy coping mechanisms
- Screen-time - too much time spent on screens can perpetuate anxiety
- Social media has shown to increase anxiety in children from FOMO (fear of missing out) to body image. They have constant access to “not good enough”, comparison to someone’s highlight reel, and a play-by-play to how they’ve been excluded
- Video games can be an avoidance of real-life situations. Set time limits and find a balance.
- Constantly checking OnCampus or monitoring their performance
- Overcommitted schedule
- Enabling the avoidance
We all know that sometimes, things are scarier when we keep them in our heads. They gain power, have the tendency to twist and contort, and take over. If we bring them into the light and out of the darkness, they lose so much of their power. Give your children the safe place to bring those anxieties or fears out into the light. Here are some other practical tips that we can all do for our children:
- Have a list of coping mechanisms - a toolbox - for your child to choose from when their anxiety picks up. Letting them choose which coping mechanism works for them, fosters independence, and builds confidence.
- Be attentive to what your children are exposed to. Avoid turning on the news when elementary school kids are around.
- Model good coping mechanisms. Talk about how you can cope together.
- Don’t perpetuate the anxiety. Once you’ve talked about it a healthy amount, it’s okay to say you are not going to talk about it any more.
- Help them see the bigger picture and that this too shall pass. (Especially helpful with social issues in Middle and Upper School)
- Make sure your child knows you are there and never feels alone. No one should feel on an island with their anxiety.
- Get together with parents who also have children with anxiety. Sharing tips and coping mechanisms can be incredibly empowering for parents. It also helps you to know that you, or your child, are not the only ones dealing with this.
I hope this information has been helpful to you! We want you to know that we adore your children and we always welcome open communications from our families. Our kids benefit from us working together and we are here to help. Please reach out to Megan Martin-Wall, Jenifer Gornik, or me if you have any questions at all.
If you want to learn more about a school that cares about each and every child, contact us today at 336.945.5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
Chansky, T. E., PhD. (2004). Freeing your child from anxiety. New York, NY: Harmony Books.