Anxiety in Children
Mental health providers are seeing a growing number of children and teenagers with disabling anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that fully one-third of teens struggle with significant anxiety!
So many children are plagued with worries. Little kids may worry about something happening to their parents. Teenagers worry about school performance, their social lives, and their future. Current events can trigger a landslide of fear. How can we promise our children that they will be safe in a world that is beset with division and filled with violence? How can we reassure our children that they will inherit a world that they can comfortably inhabit?
Kid’s express anxiety differently than adults. Young children may have mysterious tummy aches, headaches, or fear of the dark. They may become distressed when they get dropped off at school, their friends' house, or with relatives. They can become hysterical (aka--have a fit) if they experience uncertainty or frustration. Just like adults, they can also suffer from sleep problems—insomnia, waking up in the middle of the night, or nightmares. Teenagers are more likely to become avoidant—they don’t want to go to school, they don’t want to go to social events, they don’t want to participate in sports—they just want to stay in their room and play video games. They can become overcome with worries.
Strategies to help anxious children cope:
Reassurance is rarely helpful.
Telling your kids there’s no need to worry isn’t helpful. Do you remember the last time someone told you not to worry? It probably just made you angry. If it were that easy not to fret—no one would.
Help children verbalize their fears.
Encourage your child to share his fears---listen, and acknowledge his apprehensions. Ask open-ended questions that foster discussion. Respond with a “Hmm...that must be scary for you”. It’s far more difficult to encourage teens to talk. Don’t give up.
Help kids find their own solutions.
Explore with her how she might handle her concerns. What does he think might help? Don’t jump in with suggestions or solutions! Help her find her own answers. What might be a kid solution to worry about sitting alone at lunch? What would be a helpful way to handle a spelling test? Given the opportunity, children will find “child-friendly” solutions to their fears. They will be much more likely to try out their own strategies. All of this is builds self-confidence and grit, important skills for a successful adult life.
Avoidance is not a solution—it’s a new problem.
Of course, If I dodge something that frightens me, today’s anxiety is reduced. If Mary is afraid of taking a math test and her belly ache keeps her at home, today’s worry is gone—she doesn’t have to take the test today! Woohoo! Guess who’s feeling better? But what about tomorrow? Or next week? When her next math test comes around, Mary will be even more nervous.
Billy doesn’t want to go to soccer practice because he missed a big shot at last week’s game. He pitches a fit when Mom says it’s time to go. What does Mom do?
Jan doesn’t want to go to the girl scout meeting because Sarah was mean to her. She is insistent! What should her parents do?
These are the challenges of everyday life with children when they struggle with anxiety. It requires that parents hang tough—this is the way that kids, who later become adults, learn how to face their fears. Or, if we enable chronic avoidance, how they learn to evade the situations they dread. There are exceptions to this principle, but they’re few.
Get help if problems persist.
Talk to your child’s primary care provider for a referral to a child therapist. Often, family counseling may be needed to help parents find effective strategies for helping kids cope with their fears.