With nearly 10% of children aged 3-17 diagnosed with anxiety (CDC), having a child in your life who suffers from anxiety is more likely now than ever. It’s important for kids to understand anxiety is an increasingly common issue and that they’re not alone.
But why the uptick in anxiety in kids? Some point to the marketing concept of “kids getting older, younger” (KGOY). Kids, on average, have their own smartphones by 10 years old, and so they are frequently exposed to adult messaging earlier in life (BBC). They’re also dealing with issues that feel like are outside their control, and negatively impacting their mental health, like the threat of school shootings (APA, Time) and climate change (Washington Post, NPR). Regardless of any specific reason, the anxiety diagnoses have increased in number.
If you’re the concerned parent of an anxious child, you’re not alone either. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the nature of childhood anxiety and offer some useful parenting advice that both you and your children can benefit from. While these are commonly accepted at-home solutions within the mental health community, they do not replace the benefits of seeking a mental health professional.
How to Recognize anxiety in your kid
Symptoms of anxiety in children can vary from what adults experience. The median age that kids begin experiencing these symptoms is 11 (JAMA Psychiatry).
However, one anxiety may lead to additional disorders down the road. “Age 4 might be specific phobia. Age 7 is going to be separation anxiety plus the specific phobia,” says Anne Marie Albano, the director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (The Atlantic). We’ve listed a few different types of anxiety below (CDC):
General anxiety is just that, an intense but unfocused worry about the future and bad things happening. Kids might not be able to say what exactly is scaring them.
While some kids may just be shy or soft-spoken, if they are very fearful of (or want to avoid) school or other people-filled places, they might be dealing with social anxiety.
Panic disorders are perhaps easier to spot as they have some of the most physical symptoms: trouble breathing, feeling dizzy or sweaty, and increased heart rate, to name a few.
But a lot of anxiety is internal, which can make it hard to recognize in your kid. Here are a few ways anxiety presents itself in a way you would notice (NHS):
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Not sleeping, bedwetting, or waking in the night with bad dreams
- Not eating properly
- Quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts
- Constantly worrying aloud or expressing negative thoughts
- Feeling tense and fidgety, or using the bathroom often
- Increase in crying
- Being clingy
- Complaining of stomach aches and generally feeling unwell
Common Sources of Anxiety
While many kids might feel anxiety over similar issues—school, family, friends—the truth is that every child’s anxieties are different. That’s why the tips below include advice on how to start the conversation about anxiety with your kid. We only know what they’re anxious about if we talk about it.
Tips for Helping Anxiety
One thing many mental health professionals note is that a kid’s anxiety is not the parent’s fault. While you can’t control whether your child is anxious, you can control the way you respond.
If you suspect that your child is having anxiety issues, there are definitely ways to help alleviate the situation.
Respect your child’s anxiety
Even if your child’s anxieties don’t make sense to you, the “you’ll be fine” approach to anxiety management isn’t going to get you very far. Remember, fears are very real to the people experiencing them, and your children need to know that you’re listening to and understanding what they’re afraid of.
By dismissing their concerns, you imply that their feelings don’t matter. Instead, acknowledge their fears and talk through their worries from their perspective. A way of building bridges is to share stories from your childhood about when you felt the same way and learned how to get past it.
Fear has a habit of isolating people, but if a parent understands (or tries to), then a child doesn’t feel quite so alone with their anxiety and can find the emotional strength to start processing it rationally.
Help them confront their fears
This phrase may seem straightforward, but parents often try to protect their child from what is making them anxious. It’s important to remember that while “anxiety is uncomfortable… we can learn to tolerate it” (The Atlantic). Isolating your child from this feeling completely means that they are not able to practice dealing with their fears. Removing whatever makes your child anxious might make them feel better now, but it will only strengthen their anxiety in the long term.
But acknowledging a fear doesn’t mean giving in to it. Gently asking your child questions about their anxiety can help them contextualize it with a different frame of mind. For example, a conversation about anxiety over a school dance could be a series of questions like: “What evidence do you have for [her anxiety]?” or “What is the best, worst, and most realistic scenario that is likely to play out?” (Bustle).
These questions help contextualize your child’s anxiety in reality rather than in her head. Gently facing her fears with her means that, over time, she can grow to face them herself.
Involve them in your life
If you’re experiencing a change in your life, whether it’s a new job or a new home, get your child involved in the thought processes that go along with it. If your new job means you need to get up earlier to get across town, talk about it—how tired you might feel, or how you hate the traffic at that time of day.
The point is that your child sees you dealing with difficult situations, and that they know if you can do it, they can do it too.
One of the most effective ways of helping someone achieve a goal is, of course, to applaud them for it. Congratulating your child on any progress they make in dealing with their fears — no matter how small that progress may be — encourages them to do more.
Rewards are also worth thinking about. While we’re not suggesting bribery as a blanket approach, if your child is facing a particular fear that’s affecting their day-to-day life, rewarding them is a great way to make progress.
You’re not alone
In closing, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in parenting a child with anxiety, and they’re not alone in experiencing anxiety. While you may want to seek professional help, these strategies are a good starting point.
Additionally, the Rebel Girls app can be a great help to anxious children, especially when it comes to soothing fears at bedtime. Packed with inspirational stories about strong women across the world who’ve overcome all kinds of obstacles , the app is helping inspire young girls everywhere to do the same.
The app also contains a wide collection of calming soundscapes that help your child rest, relax, and learn. It’s packed with features that make the parenting journey just that little bit easier.