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 as well as younger children. This may appear as social anxiety, anxiety about grades or tests, phobias, anxiety about the child’s family or the world at large. 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. Here are a few ways to help a child with anxiety.
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.
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.
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 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.