As children grow up, the world hands them plenty to worry about. Between schoolwork and social acceptance, family relationships and natural disasters, life can be unpredictable.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of your child’s anxiety. But there are ways to support your child and teach the coping skills he or she needs to weather life’s ups and downs. “The goal is to help your child develop resilience,” says Marlo Carney Zarzaur, a licensed professional counselor at the Christian Psychological Center.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Anxiety is an unpleasant emotion triggered by anticipation of future events, memories of past events, or ruminations about self. Kids are frightened by different things at different ages. Toddlers often experience separation anxiety or are upset by loud noises; preschoolers and kindergartners can fear dogs or become preoccupied with monsters; preteens worry about academic success and peer pressure. Such childhood anxieties are normal and usually manageable.
If your child is feeling anxious, he may experience stomachaches or headaches, pick at his cuticles, chew his fingernails, cry easily, or act out during times of stress.
Anxiety belongs right next to death and taxes as an emotion that can’t be avoided. But in the rush to find a “fix” for an anxious child, you may be overlooking the importance of simply listening to your child, says Zarzaur. “Parents unknowingly deny and dismiss their children’s feelings or reduce the impact of their feelings. An example is saying, ‘You’re not really that scared,’ or ‘You’re a big boy.’ ”
Mom Hannah Giles would agree. Her toddler often panics during thunderstorms and races out of the room when the vacuum cleaner is turned on. Saying ‘Don’t be scared’ rarely calms her down. “The most important thing is to let children express how they feel,” says Giles. “Silencing the fear and trying to get kids to toughen up isn’t good. Then they internalize the fear, and we all know how that feels.”
LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD
Feeling heard and understood helps kids more than an adult’s logic or reassurance. If your child needs help labeling her feelings, say “It looks like you are mad” or “You seem really scared.” Being able to describe what you’re feeling is useful at any stage of life. “People who can’t name and identify feelings are at risk for anxiety and depression, eating disorders, academic problems, and substance abuse,” Zarzaur says.
As your child opens up, connect by reflecting her message back to her, saying “It sounds like you’re really scared. I understand.”
A fear or worry can be so overwhelming that a child begins to consider it part of himself. Kids can gain control by naming the worry. “We need to externalize anxiety and help kids see that anxiety is separate and it isn’t who you are,“ she says. “It might be as simple as giving it a name such as ‘Mary’ or ‘storm’ because to the child, anxiety feels like a storm.”
LET YOUR CHILD TAKE ACTION
While you may want to “fix” a problem for a child, he’ll feel more in control of his world if he has a role. With younger kids, stick with concrete ways to get “rid” of worry. Try writing your child’s worry on a paper and have him put it “away” in a worry box. This can be an actual box, or simply the palm of your hand. One parent made a label reading “No More Monsters” for a water bottle, which the child could use to spray away monsters.
Giles tells her daughter she doesn’t need to run and hide because “we can talk about it together.” She also tries to see things from a child’s perspective.
“If I were afraid of a storm, what would I want? I’d want someone to tell me what is going on.” So together they step outside during a storm to see and feel the raindrops falling from the sky.
Talk to your child about things she can do to feel safe and calm. Zarzaur notes that local kids worry about tornadoes and earthquakes, so making a “just in case” plan can help reduce anxiety. Simple things, like keeping a flashlight on a nightstand, can also bring peace of mind. Zarzaur says she counseled a child who worried about his home being burglarized. Since he had difficulty sleeping, he packed a pillowcase with toys and played with blocks when he awoke during the night.
With today’s dismal news headlines, adults can also feel more anxious, which kids pick up on. “As parents, we need to watch how we word things — are we letting a child hear too much? While driving, are we often saying, ‘This neighborhood looks scary?’”
Experts say having some anxiety is healthy and normal; without it, we wouldn’t look both ways before crossing the street. But, “Anxiety becomes more ‘clinical’ when anxious feelings rise to such a degree that a child has an inability to cope with the unpleasant feeling,” says Zarzaur.
Be alert to changes in your child that negatively impact his ability to make friends, to learn and maintain good grades, or to simply to enjoy activities and have fun. Clinical anxiety triggers include increased stress related to school or extracurricular activities, divorce in the family, genetic predisposition, or lack of experience in handling normal anxiety.
Zarzaur points out that the symptoms of anxiety are sometimes mislabeled as ADHD, particularly in the classroom. So “it’s important to consult a professional to help sort through the symptoms.”
When a local mom (who asked not to be identified) saw her 9-year-old son struggling with anxiety, she sought a therapist‘s help. During third grade, her bright, perfectionistic son began to worry excessively about peer approval. He had kept the same set of school friends since kindergarten. But in fourth grade, many of them moved to other schools and he faced the challenge of making new friends. His perfectionistic outlook led to negative self-talk: “Nobody likes me; everybody thinks I’m an idiot,” he would often say.
In therapy, the boy learned how to label what he was feeling; e.g., “I feel lonely and frustrated.” He put deposits in a “self-esteem account” and found ways to restore and self-soothe, including snuggling with his dog or enjoying a special treat.
He practiced friendship skills as well. “They went over skills such as listening, not always being right, and giving others a turn. I could see him put the steps in his mind as he planned an afternoon with a friend: “I’ll let him pick the video game and snack. If my friend doesn’t invite me to his house, I won’t be mad.” After three months of counseling, his parents and teachers have seen positive change, and his mother learned a lot as well. By admitting to her own mistakes, she sets an example that helps her son control his perfectionism. “I apologize and embrace the fact that I’m not perfect, either.”
She goes on, “We teach kids reading and math skills but not about emotional skills. Our son’s therapist was an emotional coach for us. We learned not to fix problems and to listen, to empathize and to be understanding,” skills that will work for a lifetime.