Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety
Everyone can experience anxiety from time to time. Whether it’s meeting someone or moving somewhere new, certain events or moments can cause anyone to feel anxious. This is true for kids, too. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children suffers from anxiety.
“Anxiety can be a normal part of childhood and is usually just a temporary phase. An anxiety disorder needs treatment as it persists and interferes with how a child functions at home and at school,” says Rima Himelstein, M.D., an adolescent medicine physician at Crozer-Keystone Health System. “Anxiety disorders are not signs of weakness or poor parenting. They are caused by a combination of biological and environmental stresses. They often occur in other family members and in children with depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,” she says.
The path from childhood to adulthood is filled with increasing responsibilities and complex situations, which can lead to feelings of anxiety. Children may start to worry about things like grades, separation from their parents, new environments or making new friends. In small doses over short periods, anxiety is very common and normal; it’s important to recognize when it becomes a problem.
“Anxiety impacts a child’s thoughts, emotions, physical responses and behaviors,” Himelstein says. “These are the several main areas a doctor will examine for possible signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Going to school, doing homework, joining a club or team or making friends are some of the common sources of anxiety in children.”
As the parent, these situations might not seem scary at all. In a child’s mind, however, changes, new environments or certain aspects of these situations can seem threatening. Anxiety can create disruption in a child’s life by making them feel like they can no longer take part in these experiences.
How to Spot Anxiety in Your Child
Although each kid can experience anxiety differently, it’s important to watch out for certain signs they may be struggling.
“Watch for certain behaviors your child may exhibit in their daily routine or over time. If they worry about something for a long period of time, have trouble sleeping at night, have trouble concentrating, or are irritable, these could be signs that they are suffering from an anxiety disorder,” Himelstein says.
It’s also common for kids to avoid expressing or sharing how they really feel. They sometimes do this out of fear of what others or their parents may think of them. They might think others will consider them to be weak or scared. This can then lead to feeling misunderstood or alone, which creates a cycle of insecurity.
Helping Them Combat It
The best first step in helping a child with anxiety is to acknowledge their feelings or problem. Avoid trying to talk them out of feeling afraid—this can have the opposite effect.
If children are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, let them know they are supported and their fears are heard. Help them feel comfortable when facing a situation that might give them anxiety but don’t give them a total out. Completely avoiding the problem isn’t the solution for helping them overcome their fears. Be sure to reward any efforts they make—even if they're just small steps.
“Of course, it’s important to understand how children can help themselves and how you can help them overcome fears. If children are feeling anxious on a frequent basis or when they begin avoiding places and activities, it’s time to talk to their healthcare providers. Medical providers can help diagnose anxiety disorders, discuss treatment options and help in finding mental health providers.
Addressing anxiety right away can help avoid other problems, like depression,” Himelstein says. “Childhood anxiety disorders left untreated will not go away on their own, and will only increase as they enter adulthood.”