By Kyle Caldwell, M.Ed., LPCC-S
Believe it or not, anxiety is relatively common in early childhood. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about one out of every eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder. This is to say that if you have children, there is a strong likelihood that you will encounter difficulties with anxiety at some point. To be clear, just because a child struggles with anxiety does not necessarily mean that they have an anxiety disorder because that would suggest that their symptoms are impairing in their overall level of functioning, which is not always the case. Anxiety can actually manifest in a variety of ways, and many of them are not so obvious. Overt signs of anxiety in children can look like such things as shaking, heavy breathing, a child expressing specific fears or worries, and distress in certain situations. Some of the more subtle presentations of childhood anxiety can look like shyness, clinginess, rigidity, quirkiness, irritability, tantrums, poor sleep, and even stomach aches.
If your child is struggling with anxiety it really is important to intervene in order to prevent it from worsening to more serious mental health issues later in life. However, when encountering these things many parents are often left wondering what to do and how to help. Sometimes getting the help of a mental health professional (e.g. Clinical Counselor, Social Worker, or Psychologist) will be necessary, but before doing that here are some ways that you can get started in helping your child manage their anxiety:
- Help to prepare your child for upcoming transitions in their day, or even changes to their schedule. An example might be if you are going to take your child to see the doctor, prepare them for it by telling them ahead of time. Talk to them about what’s going to happen in order to manage their expectations. Doing this takes away the element of the unknown and helps them know what to expect thereby preventing unnecessary worry.
- Sometimes worry is unavoidable, and when it is allow your child to experience it but also give them the tools to help manage it. For your child to overcome their anxiety they will naturally need some level of exposure to the anxious feeling itself. In times like this, your child’s limbic system (related to fear responses) is making their rational centers of the brain go off-line making it difficult to reason with them. Instead offer more bottom-up approaches such as slow deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, physical exercise (e.g. jumping jacks, pushups, etc.), and grounding techniques through the five senses (e.g. “five senses grounding technique,” mindfulness meditation). These allow your child to experience the discomfort of anxiety, while having some tools to get them through the moment. Over time, they can also learn that emotional distress comes in waves but will ultimately pass.
- Encourage your child to give their anxious feelings a nickname. Encouraging them to give their anxiety a name can help them externalize it and identify it in a non-judgmental way (i.e. their feeling is simply a matter of fact). You can also help them to identify the severity of their feelings by using 1-10 scale, which can also be represented as an anxiety-thermometer. These can help your child to have the language to more accurately communicate with you about what they’re feeling.