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How To Help Children Cope With Anxiety

Written by: Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT


Understanding Anxiety in Children

Being a parent or caregiver comes with its own set of challenges. One of the most common challenges parents face is seeing their children struggling and the desire to help them cope with anxiety eagerly. Anxiety is not uncommon, and it can start at a very young age. As adults, we hopefully have developed coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, or at least try to manage them most healthily but many still struggle. So how do we teach our children to manage anxiety if we struggle with it ourselves? Still, children lack the skill set to effectively manage their fears and worries. This can have a devastating effect on their mental health and overall well-being.

How To Help Children Cope With Anxiety

Studies have shown that separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage for children between 18 months and three years old. However, if this anxiety persists into the school-aged years, it can cause children to fear leaving home or getting lost, thus paralyzing them from living an active social life. It's alarming to think that anxiety can profoundly impact a child's life, but the good news is that there are ways to cope and handle anxiety effectively.


Common Causes of Anxiety in Children

Common fears in early childhood include animals, insects, storms, heights, water, blood, and the dark. These fears usually go away gradually on their own, and there is always something else that can replace them. Everyday things children may worry about could be shadows, ghosts, monsters, or imaginary creatures under the bed or in the closet. They may worry about fires and disasters, and other events they can't control. As they move through childhood, they may worry about their family, especially their parents. They may worry that arguments between their parents might mean divorce and the end of their family. They may worry about a parent dying or leaving, having to choose between parents, and where they will have to live. Children may overhear parts of conversations between parents or others, draw unwarranted but troubling conclusions, and spend much time quietly pondering over events of which they lack full comprehension. Although people think they may be too young to have worries, there are no limits to what children can be anxious about; they are just little humans with feelings.


Think about all the things that school-aged children have to face every day. Children stress over school, getting called on in class, getting bad grades, and having difficult teachers. They worry about being late. They worry about school shooters, and their fear is often reinforced by the frequent "shooter drills" that schools must have. Kids stress over being accepted and liked by their peers, being bullied or humiliated, being excluded from online conversations and real-life parties, and losing friends. They also worry about making mistakes and not pleasing their parents or not meeting their parents' expectations of them. They stress over what they see on social media and fitting in with others. Statistics say 7% of children ages 3 to 17 have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and the average onset of this disorder is around 11 years old. Children are exposed to so many horrific and traumatizing things in our current world that it is unsurprising that so many children are experiencing anxiety.


Signs of Anxiety in Children

Many children do not have the awareness to know that they are experiencing anxiety. There are many things to look for if you suspect your child is battling anxiety. Some of the signs to look out for in your child are:

  • finding it hard to concentrate

  • not sleeping or waking in the night with bad dreams

  • not eating properly

  • quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts

  • constantly worrying or having negative thoughts

  • feeling tense and fidgety or using the toilet often

  • always crying

  • being overly clingy all the time

  • complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell when they have no symptoms of illness

A lot of these symptoms may look like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is often misdiagnosed when many times, Anxiety Disorder is more fitting for the individual.


Ways to Help a Child Cope with Anxiety

So how can you help your child handle their anxiety? What is your role as the parent, caretaker, or mentor? When your child is experiencing anxiety, they may be scared and confused about their feelings. Helping your child understand and cope with their anxiety can be tricky and even leave you feeling anxious or hopeless for them, but there are ways to tackle it.


Explain anxiety on their level

Explaining anxiety to children in an age-appropriate manner is an essential first step in helping them cope. Children can feel less fearful and more empowered to handle their feelings by giving them a basic understanding of anxiety.


Understand their fears

Ask them questions, and help them feel validated. What may seem unrealistic to you is not to them. Do not do anything to make them feel judged or make them feel like it’s not a serious thing. Show them love, compassion, and understanding. This aids in strengthening them to work through things on their own.


Teach your child coping skills

Relaxation and breathing techniques are extremely helpful with anxiety. These are great coping skills for them to be able to pull out when they need it. Methods such as meditation will help them manage their stress and be prepared for when those intense feelings of anxiety strike.


Help your child to redirect their anxious thoughts

When they are anxious, help them turn those negative feelings into positive ones. This is another great stress management and coping skill.


Do not overstimulate or overschedule your child

Everyone wants to prepare their child to be able to do anything they want; however, this preparation can be an incredible load for a young child. If your child is stressed and anxious, look at their schedule. Is it over-crammed because this will not help them cope? You can do things to declutter the schedule, like set doctors' appointments when they do not have extracurricular activities at school. Try to break family gatherings apart so they are not constantly being taken places and have no time to decompress.


Establish a sleep routine

Lack of sleep can cause anyone stress, so your child must get the sleep they need. A consistent night-time routine will not only help them sleep but may calm them with a nightly routine.


Superheros

Teach your child about superheroes and that superheroes are merely people with superpowers. Take some time and identify some superpowers with your child to combat anxiety. Whether they are secret, in their minds, putting on a cape or a special object to help them feel "safe, supported, and strong" can help them to rely on their ability to overcome anxiety or situations that create stress and fear. Instilling confidence in their ability to manage anxiety is essential.


Facing fears

Teach your child to face what is scaring them as a way of gaining control over the situation. This can help reduce fear and anxiety over the situation and help your child gain confidence in themselves so they can manage the anxiety, that it is not bigger than they are. Helping your child to think the situation through also teaches them to problem-solve experiences that can easily create unnecessary anxiety.


Perfection is not the goal

Help your child to recognize that nobody is perfect and that giving things their best try is always a positive move. To experience anxiety over expectations that they may have or think you have for them will only increase their fears and worries and cause them to feel bad about themselves. Teaching your child to recognize their limitations will only help them to become more realistic about expectations and reduce the need to worry about them.


Monitor what they digest daily

Reduce your child's time watching programs or social media that could feed into their anxiety. If possible, moderate what they see and stay proactive to make your child aware that some things they needn't be seeing as it would be undesirable and can create negative feelings in them. If they fear the dark, watching a suspenseful movie before bed may not be the best idea.


Let them know you are a support

Encourage your child to speak with you whenever they experience something causing them to feel uncomfortable and anxious so you may help them work through their feelings and allow them to problem-solve. Talk to them about sharing with your support system so they know how to support you.


When to Seek Professional Help for Child Anxiety

In some cases, at-home coping mechanisms may not be sufficient to help a child manage their anxiety. Seeking the assistance of a mental health professional is never a sign of failure but rather a proactive step toward addressing and managing anxiety effectively. Regular sessions with a therapist can provide children with the necessary tools and techniques to manage their anxiety. If you are in need of a therapist, the Neurofeedback and Counseling Center of Pennsylvania provides professional services for assessing and managing anxiety in children.


Final Thoughts on Supporting Anxious Children

Helping children cope with anxiety is a multifaceted process that requires understanding, patience, and consistent support. Recognizing the signs of anxiety, explaining it to children in an age-appropriate manner, teaching coping skills, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and being a source of unwavering support, parents, caregivers, and mentors can make a significant difference in a child's ability to manage anxiety. Seeking professional help when necessary is also essential in ensuring that children receive the appropriate guidance and support to navigate their anxious moments. Remember, it is never too early or too late to address anxiety in children and equip them with the necessary tools to thrive.

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