Anxiety in Children Can Be Overcome. Here’s How to Help.
Anxiety in children is common. It can occur at any age, but typically peaks between ages 4 to 6, when new experiences and knowledge make for an ever-shifting (and often trivial) landscape of worries. But just because your preschooler’s fear seems superficial, doesn’t mean it is; kids need parents’ support in order to gain control of their anxiety.
What is anxiety in children?
Anxiety is often described as apprehension, worry, or fear. For children, it could have a specific inciting factor that balloons into a broader, related anxiety, or it may manifest suddenly. Parents may find the response irrational, especially if the cause is unclear. But for your child, the consternation is very real; you shouldn’t ignore it or joke about it.
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For instance, a sudden fear of swimming or refusal to attend lessons may be because, in the last lesson, your child was thrown into the deep end before being ready. Or a refusal to go to a friend’s home could be because you were late picking up from the last gathering. Another child may be reluctant to go on a school trip because she worries about being forced to eat something she does not like. And so on, and so on.
Anxiety in children usually shows up as a sudden fearfulness and could be accompanied by behavioral change. Perhaps your usually talkative child is withdrawn or silent; perhaps she can’t sleep; or, perhaps she starts avoiding certain places. Sometimes, this takes the form of disobedience or outright opposition, as in refusing to go to school. These are all signs that something has unsettled her, possibly something in the environment she is avoiding.
Your child may also experience physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a stomach ache, headache, or even vomiting. The pain or sickness is real to her, though she is otherwise healthy.
How to overcome anxiety in children?
A few simple actions on your part can help your child face the anxiety on her terms.
When you first notice the change in your child, consider your own observations. Who was around? What was happening? Was there anyone or anything new and different in his life? If so, these people or events may shed light on what’s bothering your child. But don’t assume—children can make imaginative connections that wouldn’t occur to adults, and what’s bothering them may not be what you think. Always get it from the source—in this case, the child!
Talk about the anxiety as something separate from your child.
Talking about the anxiety as an entity separate from the child creates space for him to examine his feeling objectively. In this way, it becomes more manageable: He focuses on the feeling and its effects, rather than associated feelings of shame or guilt. For instance, referring to anxiety in children as Mr. Worry or Ms. Fear can be a playful way to address the problem and often immediately engages the child in figuring out ways to limit its influence.
Address the behavior change.
The behavior is the most immediate issue and learning how to handle anxiety appropriately is the overall goal. Admit you’ve noticed a change in his behavior, but don’t dwell on it or guess at reasons. For example, simply state, “You don’t want to go to school anymore, but you used to like school. I’m wondering what could have happened to make that change.”
Point out the limitations of the new behavior.
What does his new stance keep him from doing? For instance, if he suddenly refuses to go to school, perhaps remind him what he likes about school and what he’s missing: learning maths, reading fun books, or making new friends. Try to get your child to take a stand: No, he is not happy missing those things by staying home from school.
Avoid too many ‘why’ questions.
Young children may have difficulty articulating responses to questions like, “Why would you think that?” or “Why do you feel that way?” These may only end up making your child feel blamed or as if something is wrong with him.
Dwell on past victories.
Remind your child of past instances when he overcame a fear or dislike because the outcome was more important to him. These may be tiny victories – like climbing steep stairs to visit a friend, or eating a hated vegetable in order to get dessert – but added together, these incidents may give your child the confidence he needs to gain control over the anxiety.
Call out key skills.
Remind your child he has the tools to deal with whatever worries him. If he is upset at the prospect of moving, remind him how good he is at making new friends. If he is worried about trying out for the school sports team, remind him of his bowling skills and calmness under pressure.
Make and enact strategies together.
Problem-solve with your child and guide him to a course of action so he feels empowered. For instance, if he refuses to sleep because he fears monsters under the bed, convincing him these monsters aren’t real may not be the best course. Rather, ask him what action would relax his mind, help plan this, and put it into practice. For instance one child may want to do a pre-bedtime check of the entire room so he is reassured nothing is there; another may make a monster-catcher and place it at his bedside.
Also, be sure you support the plan in action as well as words. If your child says she’s anxious about talking to a new person, you should not only develop a plan together, but also accompany her to the first meeting or help her rehearse what she can say in advance.
Consider whether you’re asking for something your child can’t deliver.
Anxiety in children can only be mastered if the child is up to the task. If a child feels pressure to accomplish something beyond his abilities, it can bring anxiety and manifest in rebellion or refusal. For instance, if your child continues refusing to go to school, is it because his classes are too difficult? Or because his interests lie elsewhere? Offer alternatives that take into account your child’s abilities, talents, and interests.
The advice above is intended for commonplace, maybe even trivial anxiety in children. If you think your child’s fear and behavior change is linked to a more serious experience, like bullying or abuse, please consult a professional child psychologist or counselor who can advise on anxiety disorders in children and more.