Addressing Your Child’s Anxiety

Every child is an individual with unique fears and challenges that can cause problems if not addressed at an early stage. Past traumatic events and worries about the future can often assert themselves in the form of anxiety, and the impact on a child’s well-being can be serious. Leslie Wiss, LPC, director of trauma-informed services for Great Circle, explains how to identify anxiety and develop strategies to help both parent and child take control of it.

“Anxiety is a reaction to stress which activates the brain’s stress response,” Wiss explains. “It happens in people of all ages and backgrounds, from a toddler upset about being left with a babysitter to people dealing with the effects of domestic violence.”

Sometimes, worry and anxiety can be good. For example, worry that motivates us to prepare for a test can be good. But, Wiss adds, more serious worries or anxieties can take root and ultimately cause future problems if not addressed. “Some stressful experiences can create long-lasting fear and uncertainty, and some children are not able to grow out of these feelings over time,” she says.

Some common situations that trigger anxiety in children include:

  • Unfamiliar surroundings or people
  • Tension or violence at home
  • Trying to fit in and worrying about friends’ or classmates’ opinions
  • Uncertainty about how parents will react to a problem (for example, if something gets broken or lost)
  • Being caught between parents who are fighting or splitting up
  • Not performing well in sports or school
  • Bullying
  • Fear about the future
  • Fear about past events, such as the death of a loved one
  • Worry about illness, especially if a family member has been sick during the pandemic
  • Pressures of returning to the classroom after lockdown

“Some children also worry excessively about things that are a normal part of life, like going to the playground at break time or eating lunch in the cafeteria,” Wiss says. “So, it’s important for parents to watch for signs of worry or anxiety in their child so they can intervene.”

Those signs can include: trouble sleeping/nightmares, loss of appetite or energy, irritability, headaches or behavior out of the ordinary (i.e., a normal happy child is withdrawn or quiet).

Wiss says a parent’s first line of defense should be to encourage communication. “Kids get stuck replaying negative thoughts and that constant internal dialog can be problematic,” she says. “Encourage children to talk about their thoughts and help them put boundaries on the amount of time they give those thoughts. ”

Laurie Evans-Schoenecker, LCSW, a Great Circle clinical learning and development specialist, points out that it’s best for parents to teach realistic lessons about managing anxiety instead of trying to eliminate it. “it’s important for children to understand that adults also deal with anxiety and worry, that it’s part of life and OK to have these feelings,” she says. “We often have kids use a 1 to 10 rating scale to express the severity of their anxiety, and then we teach tools that they and their families can use to reduce the discomfort to a manageable level. This helps reduce the anxiety, while also improving communication between the child and parents.”
Wiss also recommends channeling stress through outdoor activities, which can be an opportunity for emotional release and a chance for children to refocus their thoughts. Parents also can consider sharing books that show techniques for handling worry or set aside after-dinner time for focused conversation about whatever may be bothering the child or just a chance to talk through the day’s events.

Removing the stigma our culture often puts on mental health counseling is another key factor in helping kids – and adults – deal with anxiety. “Explain to children why it’s better to address a problem early, before it becomes serious, ,” Wiss notes. “Help children understand the difference between regular worry that can be a motivating factor and worry that becomes excessive and takes over their thoughts. For both kids and adults it’s important to remember, and discuss, that talking to a therapist is like going to any other health professional—it’s a proactive choice that can help you feel your best.”