Anxiety: that feeling of fear when something unfamiliar seems daunting. For some of us, this feeling is periodic, coming up only when we try something new; it disappears after we’ve tried the new event. For others, it’s an ongoing battle that is fought daily. Regardless of our relationship to anxiety, we all need coping strategies to learn how to manage our fears. Children especially need help learning how to cope, making it vital for adults to recognize anxiety in kids.
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 during their childhood. The reasons for this are varied. For some kids, the home or school environment is the cause of their anxieties. For others, anxiety is caused by genetics.
Knowing when anxiety becomes a problem is the key. Every child will experience fear in their childhood. Kids are normally nervous when they start at a new school, meet new people, give an oral presentation, or ask a crush out on a date. But for most children, these fears are temporary and dissolve as soon as the event has been experienced.
When children avoid things on a regular basis, adults should be concerned. This is when anxiety can interfere in their daily lives and development. These kids may end up missing out on age-appropriate activities or have their social development stunted.
One reason not all kids overcome their fears is due to a misunderstanding of what what anxiety really is. Many people tend to misread body-language and behavior that cues in anxiety in kids. Disengagement is misinterpreted for laziness, stubbornness, defiance, or shyness.
Additionally, not all adults know how to support kids with anxiety. It can be exhausting to fight with kids as they fiercely push back against anything that causes them discomfort. And it is tempting for most adults to whisk kids out of uncomfortable situations. Unfortunately, when anxiety is not treated, children miss out on living a normal life. One of the first steps in supporting kids with anxiety is to become aware of the symptoms.
Common Symptoms of Anxiety
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
Supporting Children with Anxiety
While it may be difficult to deal with an anxious child, just know there is hope. It’s helpful to have the right tools as you embark on this journey. Here are some tips the Child Mind Institute has for you to support your child through anxiety:
- Identify any behaviors in your child that indicate anxiety
- It’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know that one exists. This is the first step to helping your child over come their anxiety. 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. 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 if 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 to 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. This can be traumatizing 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 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), 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 while driving in the car while rather than 2 hours before. If you as a teacher are aware of specific students that struggle with anxiety, avoid giving students free choice. Pick the order in which kids give an oral presentation and schedule anxious kids 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? A child who is anxious about giving an oral presentation might worry about how their classmates will respond. 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 learn a lot from watching adults including how we respond to situations. If we pretend 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 on their own. Their natural instinct is to avoid anything that makes them uncomfortable. Some children don’t even know they have anxiety.
As adults, we play an important role in helping children overcome their anxiety. While it may be challenging to deal with defiant behaviors, keep in mind that it will get easier with time. It’s our role as adults to help them move past anxiety so they can have a brighter future.