Feeling worried or anxious every once in a while is a normal part of childhood. It’s common for toddlers to cry a lot when they’re away from their parents or for young kids to feel nervous about going to their first sleepover. Being afraid of the dark, blood, strangers, or storms are also all usual fears that children go through as they grow up.
However, if your child’s anxiety is so persistent or extreme that it interferes with their life at home, in school, and in other social settings, then it may already be a disorder. In fact, anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. A child with an untreated anxiety disorder faces a higher risk of having low self-esteem, developing poor coping skills, doing poorly in school, engaging in substance abuse, and suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
How would I know if my child has anxiety disorder?
Since children cannot always understand what they’re feeling, you as a parent need to recognize the symptoms of anxiety disorder in your child.
Common signs of anxiety disorder include:
- Frequent crying
- Being overly clingy
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Problems with eating properly
- Restlessness or hyperactivity
- Extreme irritability
- Angry outbursts
- Meltdowns or tantrums
- Panic attacks
- Fear of making even minor mistakes
- Constant worrying or having a lot of negative thoughts
- Refusal to go to school or join social activities
- Lack of confidence to try new things
- Difficulty in falling or staying asleep
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent bedwetting
- Frequent use of toilet
- Frequent complaints about headaches or stomach aches
- Constantly tense muscles
What causes anxiety disorder in children?
A combination of factors commonly causes anxiety disorder, including:
- Biological – genes, brain wiring
- Psychological – temperament, coping mechanisms (e.g., avoidance, problem solving)
- Environmental – anxious parenting, troubling childhood
While anxiety disorder tends to run in families, adults with the illness will not necessarily pass it on to their children.
Stressful events may also trigger the onset of anxiety disorder, such as:
- Death of a parent or close relative
- Family arguments or conflict
- Starting school
- Moving to a new neighborhood or school
- Getting into an accident or becoming seriously ill
- Experiencing abuse or neglect
- Taking tests
- Being bullied
- Experiencing disasters such as a house fire
To pinpoint the possible causes of your child’s anxiety, you can download and fill out this Anxiety Log. You can use it to note down when and where your child gets anxious, what symptoms manifest and how intense these get, and what helps your child calm down. From there, you may find some patterns in their behavior and effective ways to ease their anxiety. Share your findings with your child’s teacher and doctor so you can better determine if your child is going through normal anxiety or not. The sooner your doctor arrives at a diagnosis, the sooner you can discuss the next steps you’ll have to take to best help your child.
How can I help my child cope with anxiety?
Remember that you cannot always protect your child from their triggers or from experiencing anxiety, so you must teach your child how to cope. Here are some things you can do.
#1 Teach them to slow down
Whenever your child is feeling anxious, ask them to stay still and practice deep breathing:
- Breathe in for three seconds.
- Hold their breath for three seconds.
- Breathe out for three seconds.
- Repeat until they start feeling calmer.
Practice this together with your child until they can do this on their own.
#2 Set aside a daily “worry time”
Block off at least 15 minutes every day for your child to confront their worries. Ask them to write about or draw whatever is bothering them, then have them post it on a “worry wall” or place it in a “worry box.” Doing so will help them externalize their anxiety and distance themselves from it so they can become the boss of it. Let them explain their output and have a short discussion about it. Afterward, tear off the posts on the “worry wall” or shut the “worry box” and say goodbye to their worries for the day.
#3 Train them to practice the laddering technique
The laddering technique helps your child confront a scary situation by creating mini-goals until they gradually work their way up to their ultimate goal. Breaking their ultimate goal into manageable chunks will help build their confidence to conquer the next mini-goal.
For example, if your child is afraid of swimming in the pool, don’t allow them to simply avoid the pool. Instead, start by letting them sit and watch other kids swimming. When they’re ready, get them to dip their legs in the water. Afterward, let them stand in the shallow end of the pool, then take the next steps until they meet their goal of swimming in the pool.
#4. Teach them to reframe their negative thoughts
Reframing is a cognitive behavioral technique that helps you come up with a different interpretation of an experience or a situation so you can also change the way you feel about it.
To practice reframing, ask your child to write down the situation along with their thoughts and feelings about it. For example, the situation is that there is an upcoming school exam. Your child thinks it will be very hard and feels very worried about failing and disappointing you.
Afterward, ask your child to think of four alternative thoughts and provide evidence to support them. An example alternative thought would be that your child will do just fine in the upcoming exam since they are doing well in practice tests at home.
The last step would be to ask your child to write down what they feel after changing the way they view the situation. After reframing, your child might feel more confident about taking the exam.
#5. Seek professional help
While the abovementioned self-help techniques may greatly help, it’s still best to look for a provider of mental health services who can personalize a treatment plan for your child and help them have a fulfilling childhood.
Anxiety disorders are treatable, but early intervention is extremely important. So if you think your child might be suffering from anxiety disorder or has problems dealing with anxiety, set up an appointment now with Meridian Psychiatric Partners. We offer specialized mental health services for children and their families.