Parenting anxious children
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
Just like adults can have anxiety, so do children, even from a very young age.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 5 kids lives with a mental illness. Even though that includes every possible diagnosis, this is still a very high number. Among them, it is estimated that 8% of children have anxiety at varying degree.
A certain degree of anxiety is actually good and allows children to develop adaptive behaviors, aka positive ways to cope. Anxious thoughts can arise during big life event such as starting school or a move, and also in common situations such as meeting strangers or going to new places. The issue is when anxiety and worry become overwhelming and trigger more constant and seemingly irrational thoughts that interfere with the day to day life.
So what can parents do to help their child?
Listen and understand how children express anxiety
Young children do not always know how to express their problems with words, so anxiety will often manifest physically.
"My stomach hurts", "my head hurts", "I do not feel that well" is often how young children will express their anxiety. In the absence of real physical problem, and if these happen in a particular situation (before going to school, meeting certain people, talking about certain topics) chances are these sentences may be linked to anxious thoughts.
Changes in behavior or habits can also spell anxiety: not wanting to go outside, go to school, aggression, restlessness, fidgeting, difficulty concentrating. All are actually very similar to behaviors of anxious adults.
"My stomach hurts", "my head hurts", "I do not feel that well" is often how young children will express their anxiety.
In teens and college-age students, signs can be more difficult to spot. Older children can hide their feelings, think that they will just annoy their parents, or simply that they will not understand. They are also able to say what they believe is expected of them, and not truly express their feelings. As parents, it is not always easy to distinguish between the growing pains of puberty and a true mental pain.
Be particularly attentive to your teens:
- Are they just typically “teenage moody” or seem particularly depressed
- Are they talking about friends having anxiety and mental health issues (it may be their way of drawing attention to the problem they are actually experiencing)
- Are they struggling at school
- Did their behavior change suddenly
It is very important to acknowledge the feelings of your child, however irrational they may look. Do not dismiss their fears, or they will either believe that something is wrong with them for having these feelings or they will not trust you to be someone they can talk to.
Label their feelings and ask questions: a belly ache can be due to feelings, what are you feeling right now, are you afraid, is there a reason why you are afraid etc…That exchange will help you get to the root cause of the anxiety and help your child deal with it.
Offer positive ways to cope
Children learn by watching their parents and other adults and modeling their behaviors. Take the opportunity to tell your child what you would do in a similar situation: what I do when I am afraid of…, have you thought about doing ….
Sometimes, a simple distraction like a walk or a game can alleviate the anxious feeling and get your child back on track.
Finally, breathing exercises can help relieve tension and stress, and bring a sense of calm.
It is very important to acknowledge the feelings of your child, however irrational they may look.
With teens and older children, getting to the root of the problem is more complex. Being open to conversation, telling them you are always there for them, and ask questions without coming out inquisitive is a challenge, whether they are teenagers or already in college. Talk about mental health openly and provide resources (leaflets, websites) to help your child recognize the signs.
Make sure they have an adult to talk to, even if it is not you.
Make sure that they are supported at school
Most secondary schools have counselors who are trained to detect issues and support students. Whether you child exhibits signs of anxiety or not, get in touch with their school counselor to discuss the systems in place and how you can both help and support your child when at school and at home.
Counselors may also be aware of potential struggles your child is going through that they may not talk about or express at home.
What not to do…
As a parent it is tempting to accommodate the child’s fear. Anxious about school? Let’s stay home. Anxious about sleeping in their room? Let’s sleep in the parents’ bed. Anxious about being separated from you? Let’s stay together at all times.
Accommodating is actually doing children a disservice by preventing them from processing their feelings and finding a healthy coping mechanism. It also reinforces their belief that the world is a scary place and that avoidance is the answer.
On the other hand, do not dismiss their feelings either. It is not only hurtful, it will reinforce the child’s belief that something is wrong with them and that they are not entitled to feel the way they do.
Accommodating is actually doing children a disservice by preventing them from processing their feelings and finding a healthy coping mechanism.
With teens and older children, try to be patient and not react excessively to their behavior. Even though puberty is all about testing boundaries and “pushing parents’ buttons”, children are not in control of their behavior when it comes to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Sometimes, we’re also too quick to stick a label on anxiety when it manifests as restlessness, aggression or difficulty focusing. Anxiety is often misread as ADHD, learning disability, or even just the child being “difficult”.
Take time to consult with your pediatrician or a mental health professional to properly identify the issue.