Children can struggle with anxiety in similar ways as adults, and parents are often unsure of how to deal with anxiety in children in a delicate and productive way. Signs of anxiety can appear in teenagers and even in children as young as 18 months. Separation anxiety, the fear of what will happen if the child is away from a parent, usually appears at a young age. Other types of anxiety, such as social anxiety, anxiety about grades or tests, phobias, anxiety about the child’s family or the world at large, may appear later. Trouble sleeping, nail biting, tense muscles, nausea, tantrums, and selective mutism are a few signs of anxiety in children, though your child may show other symptoms. Since a child may have trouble describing or explaining their behavior or how they’re feeling, it can be difficult to know how to treat anxiety in children. Working with a child therapist is a great first start. Here are a few more ways to help a child with anxiety that you and your child can start at home.
8 Ways to Deal with Anxiety in Children
Many of the coping mechanisms that work for adults with anxiety can also work for children, with a few slight changes. If you are not sure whether or not your child has chronic anxiety, that’s okay–these strategies can help a child with anxiety regardless of how intense or consistent it is. If your child’s anxiety has made it difficult for them to make friends, learn, or do other activities, consider making an appointment with a therapist who has experience working with children. A therapist knows how to treat anxiety in children, and can provide studied, effective strategies that will help you and your child cope.
At the start of this blog post, we’ll discuss general ways to help treat anxiety in children that you can start at home. After discussing these anxiety coping strategies, we’ll discuss some specific anxieties that many children experience, such as how to help a child with anxiety about school, or how to help a child with separation anxiety at school.
1. Validate the Child’s Feelings
The initial reaction to a child’s seemingly exaggerated anxiety is to tell them to “calm down” or “relax.” This is unlikely to help, and a child will sense anger or frustration, which can make their anxiety worse. Instead, validate their feelings with something like “I understand that this is scary for you. It’s okay to be scared sometimes. But you’re strong and I’m here to help you if you need it.” Though it won’t take away their anxiety, your child will see that you are listening and that they are not alone.
2. Reframe Anxious Thoughts
A powerful therapy tool for adults is to challenge whether anxious thoughts represent a realistic fear. This can also be a helpful strategy for children. Ask your child to explain their fears in the best way they can. Try to avoid confrontation or negation, and simply ask questions, so your child can decide for themselves how real (or not) their fears are. You might ask questions like, “why are you afraid? Has the thing you’re afraid of happened before? If it did, how bad would it be? Do you think that is likely to happen?”
3. Use Positive Reinforcement
A child’s anxiety may be rooted in their fear of failure, embarrassment, punishment, or a loss of self-esteem. This means punishments for bad behavior, expressions of disappointment, or criticism can make anxiety worse. While it’s important to emphasize what behavior is acceptable and what is not, positive reinforcement tends to work better than punishment for especially anxious children. Praise your child and express your pride when they improve, try something that is difficult for them, or succeed. Recognize their hard work, even if the results are not what you or they expected. This will show your child that bad results aren’t something to fear, but rather to be improved upon.
4. Set Realistic Expectations for Coping with Anxiety
It’s tempting to assure your child that an upcoming test will be easy, or that everyone will love them at a party. However, while these statements are meant to be encouraging, your child can easily turn these into expectations, and they can be confused or upset if their expectations aren’t correct. Instead, focus on the attempt instead of the result. If a child is nervous about a test, you might say something like “I know that you’re nervous, and that’s okay. But you worked hard to study, you’re prepared, and I’m proud of you.”
5. Try Exposure Therapy
Many parents try to deal with anxiety in children by avoiding triggering events or activities altogether. However, avoiding triggers sends the signal that the activity really is frightening. Instead, in small steps, expose your child to what makes them anxious. Start with a controlled scenario you know your child can handle. Give your child lots of support, reassurance, and praise as you try these difficult things. Though the child may still have anxiety about the event or activity, they will see that they can manage their anxiety and that the trigger is not truly harmful.
6. Create an Anxiety “Character”
For both children and adults, anxiety is difficult to truly explain or understand, which in turn makes it harder to cope with. Giving anxiety and anxious feelings a name, shape or “character,” can help make it more manageable. Children may use cartoon characters, drawings, or treat this “character” as an imaginary friend. This process allows children—and adults—to talk about and manage their anxiety as a separate concept, instead of an undesirable or unknown part of themselves.
7. Encourage Them to Journal Anxious Thoughts
Thoughts start and change at incredible speeds, which can make them difficult to explain or express. Anxious thoughts in particular can easily spiral out of control or become rumination, an ongoing pattern of worry. Journaling is helpful for expressing, connecting, and communicating what is actually going on in the child’s mind. Set aside some time to write about anxious thoughts or feelings. To help stop racing thoughts or rumination, tell your child to finish their journal entries with positive things, like something they enjoy or are grateful for. You might also take the written worries and tear them up or put them in a box as a way to mentally dismiss them or put them away.
8. Teach Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises can help to slow the fast heart rate and shallow breathing that accompany anxiety attacks. Try these exercises with your child and practice during times when your child is calm, so they know the strategy when they need it. For three seconds each, take a deep breath in, hold your breath, and then exhale. For each breath, pick a color of the rainbow, and tell your child to think of their favorite object of each color. This will help to distract them from anxiety while also slowing their breathing and pulse.
How to Help a Child with Anxiety About School
Just as adults experience some shared, common anxieties, children also experience some similar anxieties which reflect the demands and responsibilities of their lives. Though children have fewer responsibilities than adults and their responsibilities may seem much smaller in scope to adults, it’s important to remember that these responsibilities feel very real, pressing, and large to the children experiencing them. For many children, the biggest responsibility in their lives is school. Unsurprisingly, this is a common source of anxiety for children. Knowing how to help a child with anxiety about school can help to improve their experience and their education.
The previously mentioned ways to treat anxiety in children will help. Here are a few more specific methods that can help a child with anxiety about school.
Have a Talk
The first steps to knowing how to to help a child with anxiety about school is to understand, specifically, what they are anxious about. School can create many sources of anxiety for children. Your child may be nervous about their grades or performance, or not fitting in with their peers or being bullied. They might be anxious about a specific situation, such as a reprimand by a particular teacher, an certain class project, a speech, or a specific class.
All of the previous exercises can help your child cope with anxiety, but they may need some help knowing how to apply these strategies. It will probably take several conversations to find out what your child is anxious about, specifically. They might not completely understand the source of their own anxiety, just as many adults don’t. When talking to your child about their anxiety, try to make the conversation as calming as possible.
Consider the following tips:
- Do an activity your child enjoys, where you can still talk together
- Ask questions about your child’s feelings or actions without judgement.
- Approach them calmly, even if you become frustrated or alarmed by their responses or the events they describe.
- Remember to validate their feelings, even if it’s tempting to dismiss a seemingly small situation as “not that bad” or “not a big deal.”
- Resist the urge to problem-solve. These conversations are just about understanding your child’s anxieties.
Apply Coping Strategies Together
It’s easier for your child to learn a behavior and see the usefulness of it when you are demonstrating it. Apply some of these coping strategies together, such as breathing exercises or journaling. You might talk through a problem that you’re having, so you can reframe your own anxious thoughts, while teaching your child how to do it. Or, you might give yourself positive reinforcement out loud, so your child will learn to do so, too.
Your child may have trouble applying these strategies to their own situation, even when you practice them together. Once you and your child discuss the source of their anxiety at school, help them through coping strategies by asking questions to reframe the situation, providing encouragement and positive reinforcement, and setting small, but meaningful goals. Here are some examples of how this might help a child with anxiety about school in some more specific situations.
- Reframing: If your child is nervous about a test, you might say something like, “Even if the test doesn’t go the way you’d like, what do you think will happen? Do you think it is very likely to happen?” Remember to be supportive, as reframing is unlikely to work if your child is afraid they’ll frustrate or disappoint you with bad grades.
- Positive Reinforcement: If your child is nervous about being embarrassed in a class they’re not confident about, you might offer some encouragement by saying, “I know this is difficult for you. I’m proud of you for doing it.” Or, you might try a similar exercise from the class together, and tell them they did a good job.
- Realistic Goals: If your child is having trouble making friends at school, a small but realistic goal might be to start a conversation with one other student, join a club, or attend an after-school event. Even if it doesn’t go well, tell them that you are proud of them for trying.
- Exposure Therapy: If your child is afraid of making a speech or presenting a project, you might practice with them, bring some family members together as a mock audience, or create a small project or presentation yourself to show to your child.
Empower Your Child
Many parents want to solve their child’s problems in order to spare them from frustration, fear, or hurt feelings. This is even more tempting if your child has intense anxiety about school. You may want to simply let them stay home some days, take them out of a problematic class, or keep them away from problematic students. If your child is struggling with a learning disability, a particularly intense bully is picking on them, or they need tutoring before taking on a certain class, this might be a good solution. However, before intervening, consider whether or not you believe your child has the tools and knowledge they need to realistically face their anxieties, with your support.
Developing coping strategies for anxiety can help your child in the future. Supporting your child with positive reinforcement, helping them learn and practice coping mechanisms, and helping them cope with failure can help them develop important skills. However, if your child doesn’t have the tools to cope with anxiety, or a problem is too big for them to solve, it can make the problem worse. Talk with your child first and ask them before intervening. A child therapist can also help you best empower your child while still recognizing when your intervention will be helpful.
It can be difficult to know how to deal with anxiety in children, especially if it is severe. Starting coping strategies and speaking with a counselor at an early age can help make anxiety more manageable later in life.
If your child struggles with anxiety, the experts at Michigan Counseling Centers can help. Our Michigan counselors are highly-experienced with dealing with mental issues in people of all ages. We currently offer services in Bloomfield Hills and Taylor, and plan to expand our services to other communities. Schedule a consultation today to get started.