Every kid worries now and then, but some children are constantly anxious. The two types of anxiety that are most common with kids are fears of specific things, like social situations or leaving their parents, and generalized anxiety disorder, which is persistent worrying about everyday life.
Worrying is not only hard mentally, but it also has its physical side effects as well. Anxious children often get headaches or stomachaches and can have trouble falling asleep. Some children with anxiety may cry a lot or withdraw from other people - even family members at times.
Dr. Sucheta Connolly, director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says some children are in and out of the hospital because of persistent medical problems, while their doctors can't seem to figure out why. Often, this is because anxiety is the real culprit and can be much harder to diagnose.
“Maybe your child has a fear of going on airplanes and the family’s going on a trip,” she says. “Your child will do everything she can to avoid the trip and make it difficult for the family to go.” This sometimes manifests itself in the form of physical symptoms as your child's body reacts to the stress.
So how can you help your anxious child cope? Here are some expert strategies to practice with your child during some down time so that you'll both know how to handle the anxiety, the next time is comes on:
Think it Through
Anxious children have difficulty thinking logically when they’re nervous. When your child worries, Connolly says, teach her to identify her thoughts. Have her look for evidence that her fear is realistic and help her to talk through her worries. Then, have your child think about what happened the last time she was in a similar situation. Did everything end up being ok? What less-frightening things might happen this time and how likely is the worse-case scenario?
Imagine a “Worry Bully”
Dr. Dawn Huebner, author of "What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety," suggests children think of their fears as something outside of themselves. It's helpful to imagine that these fears are a “worry bully." When your child is anxious, have her tell the bully to leave her alone. This will also help her to feel like she has more control of her feelings and her worries.
Take “Worry Time”
Kids can’t turn their fears off, but they can set them aside. Huebner recommends children imagine a “worry box.” When your child is scared, tell her to put her fear in her mental worry box. Take 15 minutes of “worry time” every day when she opens the box for the two of you to talk about what’s worrying her. Two daily worry times might be needed at first. Putting her worries is another way for your child to feel like she has more control over her worries and will eventually help her to work through them when she's feeling anxious.
Breathe with Your Belly
When your child is feeling stressed or anxious, instruct her to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth, focusing on moving her stomach in and out. Connolly says for a younger child, you can try holding a stuffed animal on her stomach so she can see it move as she breathes. Focused breathing is one of the fastest and easiest ways to slow down your heart rate and relax your body.
Running or doing jumping jacks can help children relax by getting their bodies as worked up as their minds. “Then your mind and body can calm down together,” Zager says. “Literally, your body takes over. When you stop, a few minutes later your heart rate comes down, and that's a soothing technique.” Doing some physical activity in the middle of a bout of anxiety can also help your child take her mind off of her worries and focus on something else.
Slow and Steady
If your child is scared of something specific, Huebner suggests exposing her to her fear a little bit at a time. If she's scared of talking to a certain person, she could first get used to being around that person without having a conversation with them. Then she could think in advance of something to say to that person for the next time she sees them. Huebner compares this to swimming in a pool. “When you first jump into the swimming pool, it’s really cold,” she says. “But if you stay there awhile, you get used to it.” Slowly getting your child acclimated to things that tend to make her worried or anxious can be an effective way to help her get over her anxieties, but be sure not too push the issue too much, as that can add to her anxiety at times. Take things slowly and make sure she's comfortable.
Get your child a notebook and, the next time she’s anxious, have her spend 10 or 15 minutes writing about what’s bothering her. Don’t force her to share if she's not feeling up to it. She doesn’t even have to keep the journal when all is said and done. It’s the act of writing that helps to quell the anxiety and let your child work through what's worrying her. “A lot of times, anxiety can be a kind of unfocused mass,” Zager says. “Writing it can help put some shape and form to it.”
Parents, this one’s for you! The next time your child is feeling anxious, be sure to acknowledge that she's experiencing something real. Telling her to just get over whatever she's feeling is never the solution. “They can’t just stop it,” Connolly says. “If they could, they would.”
Reward your child for trying to confront her fears. This is a big step for her, and even the tiniest efforts should be acknowledged positively in some way. This will give your child even more motivation for continuing to work through her anxieties.
A visit to a therapist may be in order if coping techniques aren’t enough. If your child’s anxiety is keeping her from concentrating in class or enjoying friends and family, a psychologist can provide that extra help in addressing her anxieties. “The main thing for parents to consider is whether anxiety is interfering with a child’s life and ability to do things that most kids their age do,” Huebner says.
At the end of the day, being there for your child by supporting her when she needs help while still allowing her to work through some things on her own is sure-fire way to help work through those worries, whatever they may be.