Anxiety: Helping Young Children Cope
Helping Young Children Handle Anxiety
My friend Chelsy at Motherhood and Mayhem is a freelance blogger and single mother and wrote this article on helping young children cope with anxiety. Since completing her B.A. in Psychology in 2006, she has worked as an Autism Support Worker and Human Support Worker. She currently resides with her daughter, two cats and one rat in New Brunswick, Canada. You can check out more of her articles at:
Anxiety is uncomfortable and can disrupt the day to day function of life for an adult, let alone for children. It is difficult for young children to understand what is happening, to express how they are feeling, and find solutions to ease their mind. We need to be able to recognize signs of anxiety in our young children in order to help them sort out difficult thoughts and feelings and help them learn to self regulate and manage.
Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience and can be a helpful tool in identifying situations in which we should be conscious and fearful. Children experience it as a part of their growth and development. However, when the anxiety becomes all consuming, it can be difficult to watch our little ones cope with the stress and worry. Whether the anxiety is severe or mild, it is important to reach out to our children and help guide them through their thoughts and feelings.
The Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Children
It’s often thoughts that stir up anxiety and create worry about possible and improbable future events. These thoughts generally begin with, “What if…?” and focus on things that may happen or minor matters that have no real impact on the child’s life.
Because children, especially younger children, have difficulty verbally explaining their anxiety and worry, the anxiety may manifest as physical symptoms such as fidgeting, irritability, fatigue, muscle pain, headaches and stomachaches.
Even if they can’t explain them, a child with anxiety will experience many emotions. These feelings may include worry, sadness, anger, shame and guilt.
As human beings, we are inherently wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Children are especially adept at this and will display inappropriate or undesired behaviors in order to avoid situations or feelings that cause them anxiety. These behaviors are often seen as tantrums, short tempers, difficulty focusing, sleep issues, refusal to participate in activities or constantly seeking reassurance.
Causes of Anxiety in Children
It’s important to note here that everyone, children and adults, will experience anxiety at some point in their lives and that doing so is completely normal and healthy. Concern arises when the anxiety becomes debilitating and disrupts the normal flow of day-to-day living.
In those cases, the anxiety may exist in the form of a disorder which can be properly diagnosed by a health care provider and treated accordingly. Otherwise, despite the seriousness of your child’s anxiety, knowing the reason for the anxiety is crucial in order to help your little one work through it. Here are some common causes of anxiety (although this list is not exhaustive):
Generalized anxiety is a blanket term to describe a sense of excessive worry applied to a variety of situations experienced throughout normal day-to-day life. Children that experience generalized anxiety will often worry about things they can and cannot control.
This form anxiety is specifically focused on social situations that involve communicating and connecting with others or performing a task in front of others. The source of the anxiety often comes from fear of embarrassment or judgment.
Separation anxiety stems from the fear of being separated from parents, caregivers or the home. Most often this form of anxiety occurs when a child begins school and must be apart from their family for the entire day.
Helping Children Cope with Anxiety
Whether your little one has been formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or they are experiencing mild to moderate forms of anxiety, you as a parent are likely to feel that you need to help in some way. Luckily, there are many steps you can take to help your child work through their anxious feelings.
It’s important to teach and practice relaxation techniques during calm and peaceful times so that, when your child feels overcome by anxiety, these techniques have become almost an automatic skill.
• Practice simple breathing techniques with your child such as pretending to blow up like a balloon then deflate or pretending to smell a flower and blow out a candle.
• Provide your child with items to help them relax, such as soft music, a dark and quiet room or a weighted blanket.
Writing or Drawing It Out
The ability to label and express feelings is a vital step in a child’s emotional development. Again, little ones often have a hard time translating those feelings into words. You can help them by encouraging them to write or draw how they feel (depending on their age and level of development).
• Have your child assign a color to their emotion. Discuss why they chose this color.
• Draw a thought bubble (like in comic books) and have your child draw or write what they are thinking.
• Encourage your child to draw their feeling as a monster. Discuss the different aspects of the monster and what they represent.
• Write or draw out a story of the situation they are anxious about. Have them write or draw their desired ending.
Have Clear Expectations and Routines
Even thought it’s impossible to perfectly schedule your life down to every minute, having a daily routine and expectations of behavior are important in helping to clear away the anxiety your child may experience when they question what will happen next.
• Give warnings for discipline or establish rules for misbehavior.
• Try to keep mornings and bedtimes as consistent as possible.
• Talk about changes to the routine ahead of time to prepare your child for disruptions.
As their parent, you are your child’s source of safety and comfort. What you say and how you approach their experience with anxiety will shape the way they learn to deal with it in the future. The next time your child is struggling with anxiety, try one of these phrases:
• “I love you. You are safe.”
• “What do you think is going to happen next?”
• “I get scared too. It’s not fun.”
• “How can I help?”
These are some great tips from Chelsy to help young children cope, manage, and regulate anxiety. Because it can be difficult for children to put into words how they are feeling, it is important to be perceptive to behavior that is abnormal for them, be patient, and loving. Figure out what will work best with your child based on their personality and what they naturally gravitate towards. Helping your child learn how to manage big and confusing feeling at a young age is helping to lay down important framework for a strong, successful, and secure life.