Anxiety. The feeling we all have when something unfamiliar is more daunting at first. For some of us, this is an occasional feeling that comes up. It washes away as soon as we’ve conquered our fear. For others, it’s an ongoing battle that we fight every day. Regardless of how often we deal with anxiety, we all need coping strategies to learn how to manage it.
Many children in the U.S. experience some type of anxiety. About 30% of children in the United States will deal with anxiety at some point growing up. The reasons for this are varied. For some it could be due to their home environment or school related. For others it could be a genetic condition. I think what’s important is raising awareness as to when the anxiety becomes a problem. Evert kid will experience moments where they are frightened to try something new. It’s completely normal for kids to be a little nervous when starting at a new school, meeting new people, giving an oral presentation, or asking their crush out on a date. What’s not normal is for kids to avoid the things that scare them for months or years on end. At this point, their fears are interfering in their daily lives and development. These kids may end up missing out on age-appropriate activities or have their social development stunted.
I think one of the reasons not all kids overcome their fears is because not everyone understands what what anxiety really is. I’ve watched adults misread body-language and behavior cues of anxiety in kids. They misinterpret challenging behaviors for laziness, stubbornness, defiance, or shyness. I think that not all adults know how to support kids with anxiety. It can be tiresome to deal with kids who are constantly anxious because they fiercely push back against anything that makes them nervous. It can also be unsettling for other people to watch kids exist in a state of extreme discomfort. Unfortunately, when anxiety is not treated, kids miss out on having a normal life. So, I thought I’d address some of the ways anxiety manifests itself in children. According to Anxiety.org, symptoms of anxiety include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Trouble sleeping
- Getting angry or irritable
- Constant worry
- Feeling tense or fidgety
- Tummy aches
- Avoidance or reluctance to try activities
- Refusing to go to school
- Meltdowns before school about clothing or hair
- Meltdowns after school about homework
- Trouble with transitions during school
- High expectations
While it may be challenging to deal with a kid who has anxiety there is hope. Just as there are specific strategies for helping kids with dyslexia, there are effective strategies for dealing with kids who have anxiety. Here are some of the tips the Child Mind Institute has to help kids get through their anxiety:
- Identify any behaviors in your child that indicate anxiety
- So this is a tip I added in (some adults don’t even know how to recognize anxiety in a child). I name this as the first step to take because it’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know that one exists. It’s important to observe your child’s behaviors and understand if any of them indicate a potential anxiety disorder.
- Help kids learn to manage their anxiety
- Contrary to logical instincts, the best way to help kids overcome anxiety is to not remove the stressors that trigger it. (If we did this, kids would never tackle anything they are anxious about.) Adults need to help kids learn how to tolerate their discomfort. With time, the anxiety will dissipate or go away.
- Don’t avoid things just because a child is anxious
- It’s tempting to let kids pass on experiences when they are feeling scared or uncomfortable–or they’re making us uncomfortable. It’s not fun to witness a kid suffer emotionally. Kids will feel a sense of relief if they get out of scary situations. But the relief will only be short-term and the anxiety will intensify in the long-run. When kids begin to cry or get upset, don’t remove them from the situation.
- Express positive, but realistic, expectations
- Kids need to have realistic, yet positive expectations. Telling them that they will have fun, pass a test, or that kids won’t laugh at them isn’t realistic. What kids need to hear is that even if their worst fears come true, they can recover. They also need strategies to deal with the situation if their worst fears come to fruition.
- Respect their feelings, but don’t empower them
- While kids need to have their fears understood, adults should avoid agreeing with their fears. Agreement makes the anxiety worse. An example is, if a child is afraid of an upcoming test, parents should not tell them that taking tests is scary. People also shouldn’t tell kids that their fears are irrational. Instead, adults should listen to the child in order to validate their feelings, and then respond with by empathizing with the child (“I know you’re scared”), then letting them know that they have support to get through the situation (“I’m here for you”).
- Don’t ask leading questions
- Adults should encourage children to talk about their feelings without asking specifically about the thing that is making them nervous. Avoid asking questions like, “Are you scared about the big test?” or, “Are you nervous about the swim meet?” This actually increases anxiety and makes things worse. Instead, try questions like, “How are you feeling?” or “Do you want to talk about the science fair?”
- Don’t reinforce the child’s fears
- Adults need to be cautious of sending the message that a situation is something the child should be afraid of. For instance, if a kid had a bad first experience kayaking, you don’t want let your fears be something your kid sees–or else they will avoid the activity altogether. You also don’t want to force your child into a situation that is completely unmanageable for them initially. This can be traumatizing for them and they will feel even more uncomfortable with the situation. Instead, meet your child where they are at by breaking things down into smaller steps.
- Encourage the kids to tolerate their discomfort
- Kids need to know that it’s a positive thing for them to face a scary situation. They need to be encouraged to engage in life despite feeling nervous. The anxiety will decrease (it may take longer than you wish at first), and that’s how kids will get over their fears.
- Try to keep the anticipatory period short
- When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time isn’t during the situation or after it. It’s before the situation. This is called the anticipatory period. So adults should try to eliminate or reduce this period. Both teachers and parents can be mindful of this. If a child is nervous about going to the doctor, bring up the event in the car while driving there rather than 2 hours before. In the classroom, this could look similar. If you as a teacher are aware of specific students that struggle with anxiety, don’t give free choice for picking time slots. For instance, pick the order in which kids present a project or paper and schedule kids who are anxious to go first.
- Think things through with the child
- Sometimes it helps to talk through what would happen if a child’s fears did come true. How would they handle it? (As much as this helps the child, I’ll bet it helps the parent as well.) A child who is anxious about giving an oral presentation might worry about what their classmates response will be. So talk about that. What would the child do if their classmates laughed at her? What would they do if they were rejected by a friend?
- Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety
- Finally, one of the best ways to help kids learn to get over their anxiety is for them to see how you handle your own fears. Kids pick up on a lot of information including how we respond to situations. If we pretend like we are always confident, that’s a false narrative and doesn’t help kids learn from us. If we avoid scary things, then kids will learn to avoid things as well. Let kids see you tackle uncertain situations and feel good about getting through those things.
Children do not know how to deal with their anxiety properly. They also don’t absorb this information on their own. Their natural instinct is to avoid scary situations. Some children don’t even know they have anxiety because they’ve been allowed to escape whatever makes them uncomfortable. They may become manipulative, emotional, whiny, or freeze when adults try to push them out of their comfort zone. As adults, we play an important role in helping children overcome their anxiety. While it may be hard to deal with a kid that throws tantrums or is stubborn, keep in mind that it will get easier with time. Not only that, but we’re not doing our kids any favors when we give up on pushing them. They’re not going to one day wake up free of their fears on their own. It’s our role as adults to help them move past anxiety so that they can have a brighter future.