Anxiety comes in all forms and can develop in all ages. We are going to explore how anxiety affects children and ways to help children cope with anxiety.
To help a child with anxiety, you first need to understand what anxiety is and how anxiety affects children. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress. Childhood is an anxious process and childhood anxiety is one of the most important mental health challenges in life. Do you have a child in your life who struggles with anxious thoughts and you’re wondering how to help a child with anxiety?
What are Signs of Anxiety in Children?
It’s important to remember that moderate anxiety can actually be helpful as children grow; this kind of anxiety is healthy and drives children to succeed both at school and at home. However, children whose anxiety is incommensurate with the situation or who are worried constantly may be dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Some symptoms of GAD include:
- Having a hard time concentrating
- Insomnia, or waking up in the night frequently
- Angry outbursts or irritable behavior
- Constant worry, nervousness, or fear
- Upset stomach, feeling shaky, or flush
- Nail biting or skin picking
- Being overly self-critical
Generalized anxiety disorder may show up in a child’s life in a variety of ways.
For instance, children who refuse to go to school or have an especially difficult time being dropped off may be struggling with anxiety. If your children exhibit one or more of these symptoms, you should have a doctor perform an in-depth screening to rule out other disorders – such as a mood disorder or even a thyroid condition – that present similarly to anxiety.
Children with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, tend to have a higher onset of anxiety.
Other Types of Anxiety in Children
- Social Anxiety Disorder causes children to avoid social situations and performance situations out of a fear of being judged or embarrassed.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder causes children to be extremely worried about being separated from their parents, primary caregivers, and other figures in their lives.
- Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRB) are recurrent behaviors that are generally related to sensory stimulation and grooming which aim to reduce anxiety. Examples of BFRB include, but are not limited to, nail biting, skin picking, and joint cracking.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) causes children to experience thoughts and emotions that are unwanted and pervasive. Sometimes, in order to work through those thoughts, children engage in repetitive behaviors called compulsions.
- Panic Disorder is associated with a sudden and intense onset of fear. Some indications one may be experiencing a panic attack include sweating, rapid heartbeat, feeling like you need to escape or an impending sense of doom. Panic attacks are usually followed by weeks of worry that you will have another attack.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) usually develops in children after being exposed to, or involved in, a particularly traumatic event. PTSD may present with nightmares, flashbacks, and feeling irritable and easily startled.
How Anxiety Manifests in a Child’s Life
It’s helpful to be aware of a child’s life situation and notice the changes in a child that would be signs of anxiety.
Sometimes, a child’s anxious behavior can be learned by being around other anxious people while some children are simply more anxious than others, due to genetics.
Children can develop anxiety from stressful events in life, as:
- Tension in the home; parents fighting or arguing
- Frequently moving homes or schools
- Being abused or neglected
- Death of a close relative or friend
- Becoming seriously ill or injured
- School-related issues such a bullying
How to Help a Child with Anxiety
As a parent or an adult with an anxious child, you may feel lost in how to help. Strategies to help a child with anxiety for parents and caregivers are:
- Being aware of your child’s feelings
- Keep calm when you child becomes anxious
- Be flexible while also trying to maintain a consistent routine
- Recognize and praise the child for their small accomplishments
- Work hard to not punish lack of progress or mistakes
- Plan for transitions, allowing extra time for switching from activity to next (at home, school, daycare, etc.)
Setting clear expectations for your child can help a child with their anxiety, by removing the “what if” and helping your child have an opportunity to meet those expectations and see that he/she can work through anxious feelings and manage their anxiety. Allowing your child to worry can also help an anxious child. Worrying can be good in helping us consider possible dangers that can harm us.
If your child has an anxiety disorder, there are options to help them succeed in school beyond the traditional treatments. One suggestion would be to establish accommodations or modifications for your child through Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or commonly known as a 504 plan.
A 504 plan gives a child with a disability additional support at school. Some common accommodations include options like giving a child extra time to complete a test or allows them to move to a distraction-free environment to complete a task.
Treatments for Childhood Anxiety
There are several treatments to help a child with anxiety. You may find that you need to employ more than one or that a more natural approach, through yoga or music therapy, is ideal for your child and their lifestyle. Regardless, you may need to try multiple treatment options before finding the one that works for your child.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment used to help children with anxiety. CBT takes the idea of how our thoughts and behaviors affect the way we feel. Changing distorted thinking and dysfunctional behavior can change our emotions.
By focusing on the behavioral part of CBT is effective with younger children, with a goal to unlearn the avoidant behavior.
Medication is another form of treatment for children with anxiety. Prescription medication can be a short-termed or long-termed solution, depending on the severity of the child’s anxiety.
Coping skills are important to learn for an anxious child in order for he/she to learn how to cope with their anxiety on their own.
- Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing (bubbles, shapes, pinwheels, etc)
- Grounding using 54321
- Positive self-talk
Another option to consider for therapy that can help a child with anxiety is Art therapy. Art therapy is a method to help children communicate without having to verbalize. Art therapy can reveal underlying emotions and provides mindfulness for the child to focus his/her mind on the “here and now.” Mindfulness is a positive skill that calms down the body and subsequently, the mind.