As young children grow and develop, they constantly encounter new places, people, and things. In many ways, learning and discovering the world around them is what makes childhood so wondrous and magical. But, all of this newness can also be a source of worry for children as they do not have a robust experience base to prepare for new situations. Here, we explore how to help children with anxiety and tips to overcome this overwhelming feeling.
All children worry at some point. Sometimes it can be in anticipation of a transition. Sometimes it is a phase they go through without an obvious cause or source. Sometimes it is uncertainty about a seemingly exciting event or adventure like a friend’s birthday party or a family trip. Sometimes the worry can be acute and last only a few minutes; other times it can build over the course of days or weeks.
This anxiety can manifest in behaviors or feelings that might not be obvious to parents or caregivers (or even the children themselves); but, these responses make sense given that children are just learning how to process big emotions. Even if your child is not articulating feelings of worry or concern, pay attention to changes in their behavior or temperament. As they exhibit some of these signs of anxiety, try to get at the root of the feelings rather than reacting to the behavior. Do not simply dismiss their feelings. Understanding how to help children with anxiety starts by honoring their perspective and concerns, and empowering them with strategies and collaboration to work through these hard emotions.
How to Help Children with Anxiety and How They Exhibit It
- Saying They Feel Sick: Just like adults, children can have physical responses to worry or anxiety. Oftentimes, children will complain of a stomachache or headache when they are scared or concerned. Young children aren’t yet able to tell the difference between their stomach hurting because of anxiety or from illness. When this happens, make sure your child feels safe and supported. Listen to your child if they are able to share what they are feeling. A supportive hug, a bandaid or ice pack (even if it seems unnecessary), or a little bit of rest with a cozy blanket can go a long way in making your child feel comforted.
- Finding Ways to Avoid a Situation: When children are worried about a situation, they often seek ways to avoid participating or delay it. A child might cling to a parent, refuse to get out of the car at drop-off, or frequent the bathroom during an event. In order to prevent this response, think of ways to prepare your child for a new situation or transition. Read books about the new experience so that your child knows what to expect. Find ways to gradually introduce them to a situation such as driving by a new preschool before the first day. Or, seek ways to include them in the preparation of an event such as letting them help pack for a trip. Once your child gets through a stressful situation, be sure to help them reflect on their perseverance and bravery. Use these moments of success to help them prepare for future challenges.
- Being Quick to Cry: Sometimes when a young child is worried or anxious they can seem overly sensitive during situations that don’t typically warrant a strong response. When a child is worried, they are filled with big emotions, and it is natural and healthy to release these feelings through crying or tears. Be understanding, give hugs, and help them to know that their feelings are okay.
- Reacting With Anger: The human brain is hardwired to respond to stress with either fight or flight. This holds true with young children. For some kids, when they feel overwhelmed with emotion or that they have no control in a situation, they respond with anger or a tantrum. This is their physiological way to process these challenging feelings. When children are in a heightened state of emotion, they likely do not have the capacity to fully process or respond to verbal communication or redirection. Be patient and talk with your child after they have calmed down. You might strategize together about age-appropriate ways to handle similar feelings in the future.
- Having Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep: At bedtime, when children are no longer playing or otherwise distracted by the world around them, worry or anxiety can creep in. This might show itself as a struggle to fall asleep or waking up from bad dreams. Some kids are comforted by a special stuffed animal, blanket, or pillow as they fall asleep. Other children enjoy listening to a story or calming music as they fall asleep. These activities can help focus their mind away from worrying thoughts as they fall asleep.
When parents are able to identify the root cause of challenging behavior, they are better able to recognize how to help children with anxiety. Coming to know the ways your child expresses anxiety is helpful and important in supporting their social and emotional growth and development. For more tips and strategies, see this National Public Radio (NPR) story on How To Help Children with Anxiety.
If worries or anxiety seem to be overwhelming your child or getting in the way of day-to-day activities, connect with your pediatrician to talk more about what your child might need. For more information, visit the CDC guidance on anxiety and depression in children.