We’ve all experienced anxiety. Maybe you get “butterflies” before giving a big presentation or a knot in your stomach when you’re running late and stuck in traffic. But did you know that children experience anxiety too? Anxiety is actually a normal part of growing up. Knowing how to recognize and properly respond to your child’s anxiety can keep it from spiraling out of control.
Children may be afraid of storms, the dark or the big dog next door. Others may become anxious when it’s time to separate from a parent or when they have to go into an unfamiliar situation for the first time. Some might be afraid to try new things or learn new skills. There are also children who experience anxiety for no obvious reason. Early recognition and knowing how to help your child cope with fears and worries gives your child the best chance of working through the anxiety.
Common signs of anxiety in children can include:
- Repeated or excessive worry, fear or apprehension
- Clinging behavior in younger children
- Crying episodes
- Frequent irritability or temper tantrums in younger children
- Acting out in anger or aggressive behavior
- Repeated avoidance of a task, setting, situation or experience
- Physical complaints such as stomachaches or headaches without a known medical cause
- Sleep problems or resistance to bedtime
- Withdrawal from social contact in older children or teens
In most cases, normal childhood anxiety doesn’t last long. It resolves itself as children become more familiar with each situation and life experience and as they respond to help and encouragement from trusted caregivers.
Parents, teachers and other significant adults can help reduce a child’s anxiety with these simple tips:
- Encourage the child to talk about fears or worries.
- Don’t minimize or dismiss the child’s concerns.
- Normalize anxiety by letting the child know he’s not the only one who feels this way and that anxiety in certain situations is normal.
- Reassure the child that you will help keep her safe.
- Verbalize your confidence in your child with statements such as: “You can do it.”
- Help the child identify and develop coping skills to reduce fear and worry; develop an age-appropriate action plan the child can use when anxious.
- When faith and prayer play an active role in the family, help the child utilize those resources.
- Don’t allow the child to continue avoidant behavior indefinitely; get professional help.
- Limit or eliminate the child’s exposure to media coverage of disturbing and frightening events. Children can easily become convinced that these acts will occur in their own family, school, neighborhood, etc.
- Let other adults close to the child know about the situation. Inform relatives, sitters, teachers, coaches, etc. about how you as a parent are responding to the anxiety so they can direct and respond to your child in the same way.
The following signs are an indication that it’s time to seek professional help for your child:
- Prolonged anxiety that lasts more than several weeks and shows no signs of decreasing despite attempts to help the child
- Anxiety that worsens, increases in frequency or begins to spread to multiple situations or areas of the child’s life
- Episodes of extreme intensity where nothing can calm the child; you can’t “reach” them
- Anxiety that significantly interferes with a child’s daily functioning or quality of life
- Anxiety that is out of character for your individual child
Childhood anxiety is treatable but can worsen over time if not addressed. When your child experiences persistent or significant anxiety that negatively impacts his daily functioning, it’s time to get help. A professional counselor or registered play therapist who specializes in treating children can help you and your child effectively manage and overcome childhood anxiety.
Andrea Schultz has specialized in counseling services for children, adolescents and families for more than 25 years. She received her Master’s degree in Counseling from the University of North Texas. Andrea is a Licensed Professional Counselor, has completed advanced training as a Registered Play Therapist and holds advanced licensure as a board-approved clinical supervisor.