There are certain anxieties and stressors throughout childhood that are a normal part of child development but red flags for a more serious condition include when it starts to interfere with daily functioning and when you as a parent start to worry or notice a little more. Did you know that anxiety disorders are the leading mental health challenge with children? And that 80% of children who would qualify for an anxiety diagnosis go un-diagnosed and untreated? The world is getting more stressful by the day so it is not surprising that anxiety in children is increasing as well.
As a clinician working with many children and families with anxiety as well as being a mama of a very anxious little girl I can tell you that there are many different ways anxiety manifests and the ways to support and address can vary drastically too. First, lets discuss the normal anxieties of childhood…
FIRST, WHAT’S NORMAL?
Anxieties are a normal part of child development. They are necessary for health, survival, as well as to develop a sense of safety. Especially in very young ages, children need clear limits and boundaries in order to feel safe, secure, and anticipate expectations. Without limits, children can feel out of control and start to foster an anxious internal working model.
When a child carries these anxieties or perseverates over them to the point of avoiding activities, situations, or people to an extreme is when it’s time to look further into it. Anxiety can manifest itself differently in different children as cognitive, behavioral, or physical symptoms. Anxious symptoms that may need to be further addressed include when a child is persistently distressed despite a caregivers reassurance, trouble sleeping at night, insisting on sleeping with parents, physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach pain that are not medical, and super silly behaviors including nervous laughter and excessive nightmares.
HOW DOES YOUR CHILD TELL YOU THEY’RE ANXIOUS?
Children wont tell you they’re anxious. They may not even know the exact stressor they are worried about so here are a few redflag phrases to listen out for…
- “My tummy hurts” – Anxiety releases a stress hormone, cortisol, which increases stomach acid.
- “I’m not hungry” – Digestion becomes surprised when the body enters ‘fight or flight’ mode.
- “Please don’t leave me”/ “I want to go home” – Anxiety can cause a child to be fearful of situations, even in the presence of loved ones
- “I can’t do it” – Everything seems impossible when you have anxiety and previously mastered skills can feel overwhelming
- “I can’t stop crying” / “I can’t breathe” – Panic attacks can feel like you’re dying, choking, or unable to breathe. When my daughter enters a panic attack she reports being unable to stop crying
- “I have a headache” – Those cortisol levels can also cause head pain
- “Nobody wants to play with me” / “I don’t have any friends” – Children may worry about how their peer’s see them. Even when a child is playing with friends and it does not appear that they are isolated, if they express that they don’t want to go to school because they have no friends it may mean that their internal esteem is worried.
- “What if…” – Anxious children live in the future and worry about bad things possibly happening.
SO… WHAT TO DO?
So now, what do you do? Here are a few (7 to be exact) things you can do as a parent to help alleviate some anxious symptoms in your child.
1 Seek Help – First and foremost – SEEK HELP! Family and Play Therapy, even for young children, can do a world of good! If you’re concerned about anxiety in your child, consult with your pediatrician as your first step for child and family therapist recommendations.
2 Pet A Pup – Studies show that petting a pet for 10-15 minutes reduces heart rate and calms the body
3 Blow Bubbles – Deep calming breathes to create large bubbles helps relieve stress, calm the body, and lowers an elevated heart rate
4 Sensory Input – Deep massages, weighted blankets, playing with play-doh, and big bear hugs help a child feel their body in space. This is especially helpful during panic attacks when one feels out of control.
5 Draw The Worry – Drawing, for young children, and writing, for older children, helps externalize the anxiety rather than keeping it inside.
6 Past Successes – Reflecting on past successes is helpful for older children. This helps rewire their way of thinking about the current stressful situation as less inevitable and more achievable.
7 Stretching – Stretching, meditating, breathing exercises, and having a calming time helps a child breath, feel their body in space, clear their mind, and alleviate internal stresses.
CHILDREN’S BOOKS TO HELP WITH ANXIETY
If you’ve been following my blog or know me personally, this section is no surprise to you as I am a Children’s Book fanatic. Reading to and with your child (or for older children, reading to themselves) in itself can help alleviate stress. It helps your child get out of themselves as well as allows for a child to work through big or scary feelings through a literary character (which feels much safer than going through it yourself). Here are a few suggestions and finds that I have used in my clinical practice and with my own anxious little one.
Anxiety is the leading mental health diagnosis in young children and the majority of those kiddos go undiagnosed and untreated. Although anxiety or certain worries are a normal and healthy part of development, in excesses it can be damaging.
How you as a parent react and support your child directly effects how they are able to manage not only the current worry but future stressors, as well as how they can regulate and function as an adult. Although that sounds scary, children are extremely resilient. If you worry your child has anxiety, or just worries more than you think they should, always seek support. It takes a village!
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