It would be wonderful if the innocence of childhood could be worry-free. Unfortunately, many children can by filled with worry, anxiety and fear. The good news is that teaching children ways to manage worries and cope positively with anxiety as they develop can have a lifelong positive impact.
What is anxiety?
- An automatic response built into our systems by nature.
- Anxiety is a normal response to perceived danger or threat. We respond in three basic ways: we freeze, fight or take flight.
- If we are walking in the woods and a bear jumps out, it is our anxiety that helps us react to survive.
- Our natural reaction is to want to escape or fight, hence the term “fight or flight.” (Or freeze, in some cases.)
- However, sometimes the anxiety or emergency response kicks in when there is no danger.
- Anxiety is helpful only when it is pointing out danger to us.
- Sometimes, people have difficulties because their emergency system turns on when there is no danger around them.
There are several typical childhood anxieties, and this is a normal part of development. Some examples are:
- Walking into a dark room
- Getting a shot
- A spelling test
Children often show their anxiety through physical symptoms because they cannot verbalize or identify that they are anxious. Instead, they may express symptoms of:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart racing
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Nausea, butterflies in stomach
- Wobbliness in legs
- Tightness in chest or chest pain
- Choking sensations
- Hot flashes or cold chills
- Trembling or shaking
- Fear of dying or losing control
- Tingling or numbness
- Fear of being embarrassed or unable to escape
- Repeatedly worrying about a thought
What can parents do to help children with anxiety?
- Parents can help their children change anxiety avoidance patterns by increasing approach behaviors, in combination with positive coping, to feared situations.
- Many times, parents want to overly reassure children or rescue them from the discomfort of anxiety. If we overly reassure or rescue, we may reinforce an avoidance pattern for children. For example, if children are anxious about monsters in their room, so begin a pattern of sleeping with parents, they learn that the only way to relieve anxiety is to be next to a parent, rather than learning to self soothe and learn they are capable of handling their worries in a positive way. That pattern may continue in anxiety about participating in an activity, so the parents may instinctively take the child home to alleviate the child’s discomfort; however, the pattern of avoidance to relieve anxiety continues and gets reinforced, so anxiety may increase for future situations.
- Instead of reinforcing avoidance patterns, parents should try to cooperatively help the child cope and manage the anxiety in a positive way so the child can feel successful at managing feelings and situations.
- Parents can teach, coach and empower children to use cognitive reframing skills. Cognitive reframing allows one to identify a negative or anxious thought and counter the thought with a realistic thought. For example:
- “I can’t do it” can change to “Maybe I can if I try.”
- “It will go bad and people will laugh at me” can be changed to “It is likely to go well. Once I am there, I usually feel fine. My anxiety is just tricking me right now.”
- Once children learn to counter anxious thoughts, it works much better if they generate the reframe/ realistic thought themselves, so they increase confidence in managing anxious thoughts independently.
- Anxious children tend to do better with increased predictability in life – following a schedule and routine can be helpful.
- Parents can be very helpful by modeling positive ways to manage stress and anxiety. After all, research shows that there is both a genetic and environmental predisposition to anxiety.
- Parents can teach children to use logic and problem solving to manage anxiety. Logic involves reminding ourselves that really bad things don’t happen very often. Most of the time the things we worry about never happen, and if something bad does happen, we are capable of problem solving through it to handle it.
- Parents can teach children to talk back to their “Worry Bug” that continues to tell them worries or negative thoughts. “Worry Bugs” trick us and make us believe that the most terrible thing will happen, when really that terrible thing is very unlikely to happen. Telling the “Worry Bug” to “get lost” can empower children to feel control over their logical thoughts.
- Parents can teach children the difference between true danger and “false alarms” of anxiety. Anxiety often “tricks” kids into thinking they are not safe or will not be alright and can feel the same as how true danger affects one’s survival response. When kids learn that it is just a “false alarm” they can use their coping more effectively.
- Parents can teach relaxation skills such as:
- Daily exercise or physical activity
- Thinking about favorite memories to change their “worry channel” in their brains to their “favorite memory channel”
- Deep breathing (Breathe2Relax app is a free, great resource).
- Progressive muscle relaxation
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner