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What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious



Fear is a normal feeling for children from time to time. In some cases, it can even be beneficial. For example, without some fear, your child would run into oncoming traffic or jump off a cliff without a second thought. Fear is meant to keep them safe.

However, sometimes children can be scared of things that don't really threaten them. They may have a fear of public speaking or monsters under their beds, for instance. As a result, they may not be able to participate in something they would like to, like joining the basketball team.

In some cases, children develop severe or chronic anxiety, which can make them unable to perform well in school or maintain social relationships. There is a risk that they will not be able to develop normal, healthy functioning, like high hygiene standards, good sleep habits, nutritious diets, and regular exercise. In these situations, we recommend that you speak with your pediatrician or seek a consultation with a child therapist.

It is important for you to respond appropriately to your child's anxiety in order to help your child cope with anxiety. You can help an anxious child cope with uncomfortable feelings by using these ten strategies, along with what you should not do.

The Different Types of Anxiety

Before moving on, it should be noted that anxiety disorders have many types within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by clinicians to identify diagnoses. Listed below are some of the most common disorders in children. You should look out for these signs when deciding what to do next.

Separation Anxiety is most common in younger children and manifests in the following ways:

  • Anxiety or tantrums when parents aren't around.

  • A constant fear for parents' and caretakers' safety.

  • Refusing to attend school.

  • Physical complaints such as stomachaches and headaches.

  • An extreme fear of sleeping away from home.

  • Excessively clingy behavior.

  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping.

An extreme fear of an object or situation can be referred to as a phobia. These fears may include dogs, insects, or going to the dentist.

In older children, social anxiety can appear as:

  • Having an irrational fear of school.

  • Being afraid to meet or converse with people.

  • Keeping social situations to a minimum.

  • Outside of the family, they have few friends.

A person suffering from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) may show the following symptoms:

  • General anxiety is the fear of bad things happening in the future.

  • Things are often feared before they occur.

  • Concerns or worries about family, school, friends, or activities all the time

A panic disorder is characterized by manic attacks that resemble the following:

Feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty as a result of repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear;

Anxiety disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Selective Mutism, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are also more common in children than in adults.

Anxiety is a Fear of the Future and All its Unpredictability

"The main thing to know about anxiety is that it involves some level of perception about danger," says Danny Pine, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and one of the world's top anxiety researchers, adding that it thrives on unpredictability. Many anxious children live in a state of constant vigilance, alert to any possible threats.

Each of us has some degree of hard-wired worry, since we require it for survival. According to Pine, this is one of the reasons humans have survived so long. "Young children are naturally afraid of strangers. That's an adaptive thing. They're afraid of separation."

These common fears can become full-blown anxiety when they get amplified and last longer than they should. At ages 3, 4 and 5, separation anxiety is common, but if it strikes at 8 or 9 it may indicate anxiety. The median age of onset of anxiety disorders is 11 years old, according to research.

Anxiety is caused by a variety of factors. Genetics accounts for roughly a third to half of the risk. However, environmental factors also play a significant role. All types of stress, such as home conflict, poverty, and neighborhood violence, can contribute to anxiety. As common as anxiety disorders are, they appear to be vastly underdiagnosed and undertreated, especially in women.

For this reason, it's important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to identify it at an early stage. Watch out for the length of time anxious feelings last. Usually, a few weeks aren't a cause for concern, Pine says. "It's really when it goes into the one- to two-month range — that's where parents should really start ... worrying about it."

Another red flag? "Are there things that the child really wants to do or needs to be doing, and they can't do those things?" asks Krystal Lewis, a colleague of Pine's and a therapist working at the National Institute of Mental Health. "If you feel you're hitting a wall in terms of trying to get the child to do those things, that might be another indicator that potentially, you know, we should get some help."

Do's and Don'ts to Ease Anxiety

Anxiety can be managed with a variety of tools. Researchers have found that these strategies are effective for treating and managing anxiety when used by licensed mental health clinicians.

Using these tools with your child is a good idea if you feel comfortable doing so. If you don't feel confident or want more support, consider contacting your child's primary care physician for referrals to a mental health professional. A physician or clinician may need to use additional tools not listed here if necessary.

Do:

Determine the triggers.

Identifying what causes your children to feel intense anxiety is a helpful first step for you and them. You can apply a number of the tips below once you determine those triggers.

Empathize and validate.

There is nothing more real to children than their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. The most important thing for your children is to feel heard and understood no matter what their experiences may be.

Recognize and affirm your children's valid thoughts, feelings, and experiences by empathizing with them, and imagining what it is like to be in their shoes, and empathizing with them.

Discourage unproductive thinking.

Talk to your kids about the thoughts they are experiencing that are unhelpful and causing them distress, like "I'll fail my test and then fail my class." You can work with your children to identify more realistic, helpful thoughts once you know what thoughts they are telling themselves. To get them to think differently about their situation, ask them questions such as:

  • "Was there ever a time when you failed a test or class"

  • "In the past, what did you do to pass a test? “

  • “Are you doing those things now?"

In response to these questions, children are able to carefully consider all the evidence and reach their own conclusions. A child who realizes they will succeed is much more powerful than one who is told by their parents, teachers, or peers they will succeed. Encourage your child to develop more realistic, helpful thoughts once their unhelpful thoughts have been challenged, such as "I feel that I am likely to fail, but I have prepared for this test and will do my best" or "Even if I fail this test, it does not mean that I will fail the class."

In reality, most children do not buy into unrealistic ideas, such as "I'll do amazing and I'll pass."

Teach deep breathing.

Research shows that deep, slow breathing can alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms. Teach your child to calm their body with some simple breathing exercises if he or she experiences a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety.

Here's how to help them calm down by "smelling the pizza":

  • Imagine a slice of pizza. A cookie or soup can also be substituted for "pizza".

  • Smell the pizza. Breathe deeply through your nose to enjoy the delicious odor.

  • Cool the pizza. Using your mouth, slowly blow out air to cool the pizza.

The "bubble blowing" technique can also be taught as an alternative exercise. Tell them to pretend they're blowing bubbles. It is important to remind them how softly they need to blow for a big bubble to form. By doing this, they will be more likely to remember to exhale slowly.

Repeat these exercises with them a few times to ensure their body is calm. Explain how they can remember to do it by themselves when they feel anxious.

Organize tasks into smaller parts.

It will be easier to manage the overall process if you break down tasks into smaller steps. In order to positively reinforce a child's behavior, you can give him/her random rewards as the process proceeds. Make sure that older children receive positive praise and are encouraged to reward themselves for their achievements.

Role-play.

You can prepare your children by role-playing situations they fear. Ordering at a restaurant, purchasing a movie ticket, asking a teacher for help, or inviting friends over are some examples.

Create an overall sense of confidence.

To build confidence in your children, encourage them to do tasks around the house. Give your children the opportunity to face challenges as well.

Praising their efforts is more important than focusing on their results. Try asking your children how they overcame similar obstacles in the past if they get stuck.

Don’t:

As opposed to eliminating anxiety, the goal is to help a child manage it.

Although no one wants to see a child unhappy, removing stressors that trigger anxiety is not the best way to help them overcome it. Their focus should be on learning to tolerate anxiety and function as well as possible despite it. By doing so, anxiety will decrease over time as a result.

If your child is anxious about something, don't avoid it.

Short-term relief from their anxiety will come from avoiding the things they are afraid of, but in the long run, that will reinforce their anxiety. Suppose a child feels uncomfortable and starts crying - not because they are trying to manipulate you, but because they are feeling upset and upset. When their parents whisk them out of there, or remove the frightening thing from their lives, the child learns that coping mechanism. This cycle is likely to repeat itself in the future.

Negatively label emotions.

Keep your labels of good and bad away from their thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Rather than saying "It is bad to think that you will fail," children internalize that and conclude they are bad."

Don’t ask leading questions.

If your child is anxious about the big test, try not to ask them leading questions, such as “Do you feel anxious about the science fair? Ask open-ended questions instead of feeding the cycle of anxiety, “How do you feel about the science fair?”

Minimize their anxiety.

Rather than telling your child to "just do it" or "suck it up," acknowledge their feelings of anxiety and support them. When dealing with things that cause anxiety, it is more helpful and effective to meet the child with empathy, compassion, and kindness.

Respect their feelings, but don’t empower them.

Oftentimes, validation isn't synonymous with agreement. A child who is frightened about going to the doctor because they need a shot shouldn't belittle that fear, but they shouldn't be amplified either.

Being empathetic, listening to their worries, and helping them understand what they're scared about will help them overcome them. Your message should be, "I know you're scared, but it's okay. I'm here and I'll help you."

Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.

If you have a child who has had a negative experience with a dog, you do not want to say, with your tone of voice or body language: "Maybe you should be scared of this." If you are worried about how your child will react to the dog next time, you may unintentionally send a message that they might be scared.


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