6 Helpful Tips to Support Children Struggling with Anxiety
Childhood anxiety is a pervasive problem. According to Danny Pine, a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) child and adolescent psychiatrist and one of the foremost anxiety researchers in the world, about 20 percent of children experience some degree of clinical-level anxiety by adolescence. This is not to be confused with separation anxiety, which can be a sign of anxiety disorder but is relatively common from ages 3 to 5. Research suggests the median age for anxiety disorder onset is 11.
Genetics plays a key role in the development of anxiety in children, but anxiety can also arise from environmental factors, such as experiencing poverty and violence or stressful situations at home. Parents should learn how to detect anxiety in their children early to improve long-term outcomes. Physical symptoms include an upset stomach, headache, clammy hands, crying, and rapid heartbeat.
The following are six helpful tips parents can use to help their child manage their anxiety.
1. Manage Instead of Eliminate
Experts tell parents to try to help their child face their fears rather than eliminate any stressors or triggers that contribute to their anxiety. By learning how to cope with or tolerate their anxiety, children become better equipped to deal with their feelings when they do experience intense bouts of anxiety. As a result, their anxiety should gradually decrease over time.
The importance of helping children face their fears to overcome anxiety, says Pine, is something researchers have discovered from years of studying childhood anxiety. Parents are typically wired to want to protect their children or lead them away from things they’re afraid of, but this won’t help their anxiety.
“The more that you avoid or don’t do certain things, it’s almost implicitly teaching the child that there is a reason to be anxious or afraid if we’re not doing the things that are difficult,” notes Pine’s NIMH colleague Krystal Lewis. “It’s sending this message that, ‘Oh well, there is potentially a dangerous component to this.’”
2. Avoid Leading Questions
Even if you have an idea of what your child’s anxiety may be about, it’s important to avoid asking leading questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions and allow your child the opportunity to express their feelings — they may share some information or thoughts you hadn’t considered.
For instance, don’t ask, “Are you worried or nervous about the big game tomorrow?” Instead, try asking, “How are you feeling about the game?”
3. Validate Their Fears
Children can be anxious for a variety of reasons, some of which may seem irrational to parents. However, it’s important to understand that these are very real feelings for the child. Telling them, “You have nothing to worry about,” isn’t an effective way to alleviate their fears or improve their state of mind. Show empathy and acknowledge their fears without amplifying them too much. Most importantly, let your child know you’re there for them and will help them get through whatever stressful situation they may be facing.
4. Think Things Through
When a child is anxious or feeling stressed about a real or hypothetical scenario, it can be helpful to have a conversation with them about how they would manage the situation. If your child is worried that you’ll forget to pick them up from baseball practice, for instance, ask them what they would do if that happened. On their own, your child might reason that their coach would wait with them or call you to come pick them up. By having a plan to address their fears, children can reduce the uncertainty that can often bring about anxiety.
5. Relax with Deep Belly Breathing
Deep belly breathing is one of the most effective techniques to help a child relax when they’re feeling anxious and can’t calm down. Have your child place their hands on their chest and stomach and instruct them to inhale slowly and deeply through their nose, drawing the breath into their stomach, and slowly exhale through their mouth. Remind them to focus on every breath.
This breathing exercise helps decrease heart rate, muscle tension, and stress levels while increasing the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream. You can help your child execute deep belly breathing properly by asking them to pretend to smell a flower and then blow out birthday candles.
Types of Therapies
Therapy may be necessary for children with severe cases of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective therapy that provides children with the tools to question their negative thoughts and feelings and replace them with positive ones. Participants must be actively engaged for CBT to be successful, so it can be challenging for young children.
Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) is a parent-based program that can help parents respond appropriately to their child’s anxiety and help them manage it in a supportive way. A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that SPACE is just as effective as CBT for treating childhood anxiety.