Parenting can be an incredible journey, but it's definitely not without its challenges. And while we can expect there to be times when we and our kids may feel stress or anxiety, there can be a tipping point when typical worries venture into something more serious. Knowing how to help a child with anxiety and knowing when to step in isn't always clear.
"Anxiety is a normal and necessary part of the human experience," Caroline Danda, PhD, a clinical psychologist, tells POPSUGAR. "Sometimes, however, instead of interpreting our anxiety as a sign to pay attention and gather information to be prepared, anxiety triggers the fight-flight-freeze system, leading to tantrums, defiance, avoidance, and shutting down."
But how do we know when what our kids are experiencing is normal, when should we intervene, and how to help kids with anxiety? Here's what the experts say.
How Does Anxiety Differ From Typical Childhood Worry?
Worry and stress are a part of life, and every human is bound to feel one or the other at least once in their lifetime. But how do you know if what your child is experiencing is more than the typical worries and fears? The key is how much their worry or fear is impacting their life.
"Anxiety may show beyond typical kid worries when it significantly interferes with a child's daily life, causes excessive distress, or results in physical symptoms," Dr. Caroline Fenkel, DSW, LCSW, adolescent mental health expert and Chief Clinical Officer at Charlie Health tells POPSUGAR. "Persistent anxiety that lasts for several weeks and disrupts normal activities is a cause for concern.
Dr. Danda agrees, adding that in children, a typical worry would "respond to reassurance and support." Adding that, "problem anxiety occurs when it causes impairment consistently and is more intense or lasts longer than expected. Essentially, frequency, intensity, duration, and impairment are signs that anxiety, or other mental health concerns, are problematic."
That distinction is backed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also notes that a child may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder if their fear and stress interfere with home life, school, or socialisation. According to the CDC, 9.4% of kids between the ages of 3 and 17 were diagnosed with anxiety in 2016-2019.
However, while the American Psychological Association (APA) warns that anxiety is on the rise in kids over the past few years, they also note that early care and treatment "can make an enormous difference in the trajectory of their lives."
But to get there, we need to know what to look for first.
Signs Your Child Might Have Anxiety
"The more observable symptoms of anxiety in children are excessive amounts of reassurance-seeking, asking a lot of what-if questions, and being afraid to do things to the point of trying to avoid situations or experiences," Dr. Danda adds. "Irritability, defiance, and tantrums can also be symptoms of anxiety."
Anxiety in kids can take on a physical manifestation, too, Kelsey M. Latimer, PhD, clinical psychologist and registered nurse, tells POPSUGAR. These manifestations can include "not sleeping well, changes in appetite, and not wanting to socialise in the same ways they would before."
The challenge for parents who have kids with anxiety is that it's not always easy to determine whether these signs are anxiety or another concern, especially when looking at the physical signs — and a child wont necessarily be able to connect the two either.
"Because children are still developing emotionally and cognitively, they often are not fully aware or able to place in words what they are thinking or feeling," Dr. Latimer explains. "They might need help in being able to connect their worries about grades with the fact that they get a headache every morning as they are getting ready for school."
Dr. Fenkel offers some more signs your child may be dealing with anxiety, which include:
- Physical symptoms like tummy aches, headaches, muscle tension, or feeling tired.
- Irritability, like having mood swings. "It's like they're carrying a heavy emotional backpack," she says.
- Avoidance behaviour like avoiding some activities or situations which might make their anxiety rise.
- Sleep disturbances could manifest as difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep.
How to Help a Child With Anxiety
"First, I would encourage parents to be kind to themselves, too," Dr. Latimer says. "Just because your child is anxious does not mean you are a bad parent or that you did something wrong."
Dr. Fenkel agrees, adding that if a parent notices anxiety in their child, the best first step is to pause and read up on childhood anxiety. "Take some time to understand what's going on with anxiety in kids," she says. "It's like studying up on a topic that helps you support your child better."
All of this helps get you in the best frame to be able to talk about anxiety with your kid, which is an important step in showing support. Once you're ready to talk to them be sure to "put on your listening ears" as teachers say to create a safe space.
"Listen to them with all your attention and without judgement. Sometimes, just having a good chat over a cookie can work wonders," Dr. Fenkel shares. Other tactics and tips include using "I" statements, like "I'm feeling concerned" to express how you feel, which helps keep things friendly and blame-free, Dr. Fenkel says. "And don't forget to ask open-ended questions so your child knows you're really interested in their thoughts and feelings. This way, you're creating a warm and supportive space for a heart-to-heart chat."
One thing parents should definitely not do when discussing anxiety in their kids is dismiss their feelings, warns Dr. Danda.
"The worst way to respond to anxiety is to say it's not a big deal or make them feel bad about having the anxiety," the doctor shares. "Children don't choose to be anxious, the anxiety simply shows up. Using words such as should and need to (e.g., You need to calm down) often makes kids feel worse and creates defenciveness."
Instead, Dr. Fenkel suggests parents learn to slow down, shift to calm when they can during moments of anxiety. "Once anxiety is triggered, it takes a little time to move through it. Create opportunities to help calm by letting them know, 'Let's take a minute and then we can figure it out,'" she shares.
"Likewise, you might tell them, 'I'm going to take a few deep breaths and then we can figure out the next steps,' and they might follow your lead," she continues. "Some kids appreciate a hug or cuddle for a few minutes before further discussing a situation."
Dr. Latimer, agrees, adding that it makes a big difference when talking to kids to "get down on their level; sit down with them and maybe go into their space where they feel safe. Maybe have a talk in their room or sit outside in a place with little stimulation and few distractions." She explains that keeping these things in mind "ensures that the environment itself is set up for open discussion and safety."
How to Seek Out Help and Resources For Anxiety in Kids
For parents who want to find help or resources for their kiddo experiencing anxiety, there are several avenues they can take, Dr. Latimer says.
She suggests reaching out to your child's school not only to make them aware of the anxiety your kid is experiencing but also because they might be able to help ease the fears. "There are methods of manageing this that can vary from school accommodations to placement in exceptional student education programs to ensure that the child is helped to make the school the safest place possible for them," she explains. "Some schools also have counseling available and/or group therapy."
Additional resources can include speaking with your child's pediatrician or family doctor, and therapy can be a benefit for some, too. "Therapy can focus on shifting unhelpful thinking styles, developing coping techniques to regulate one's nervous system (e.g., deep breathing, grounding exercises, positive self-talk, etc), and lots of other things." Dr. Latimer shares. "In addition, your family doctor or psychiatrist can assist in discussing potential medication options that can also help to regulate the brain so that the person is less likely to be in 'fight or flight' and more capable of using the coping techniques they have learned."
Navigating anxiety with our kids can be a challenging situation, but knowing what to look for, how to help, and when to reach out to professionals can make everyone feel supported. And that's always a good thing.