You may notice your child has fears about attending school, completing homework, making new friends, or even experiencing a case of insomnia here and there. But when these fears become intense and interfere with their daily functioning, it could be childhood anxiety. It may be challenging to know when your child is experiencing anxiety, especially when they’re learning to navigate the world around them. Thankfully, there are a few ways you can help ease their concerns and teach them appropriate coping skills to lessen their worries.
What is ‘Childhood Anxiety’?
Childhood anxiety may not look the same as it does in adults. For example, anxious children may be clingier, easily frightened, and experience somatic symptoms like headaches and stomachaches.
It can also be challenging to detect, especially since it is common for children to experience fears and concerns. While this is the case, it’s important to evaluate whether their fears get out of hand and disrupt their functioning.
When children don’t outgrow their anxieties, they experience several different types of anxiety disorders;
- Separation anxiety is common in young children around 3 and 4. Children experience exaggerated fears of being separated from their parents or caregivers and refuse to go to school, have sleepovers, or sleep alone.
- Specific phobia involves children becoming overly anxious or worried about specific triggers such as sleeping, thunderstorms, darkness, and insects, to name a few.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder creates intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors such as washing hands or checking things over in response towards a specific obsession.
- Other anxiety disorders include panic disorder, selective mutism, and social anxiety.
Let’s discuss the symptoms and what makes children more vulnerable to these anxiety disorders.
18 Symptoms of Childhood Anxiety
Childhood anxiety affects several aspects of a child’s life, including their home, school, and social life. And while anxiety symptoms are specific to the child, and the type of anxiety disorder, there are a few general symptoms to keep an eye out for;
- Tense muscles
- Avoidance behaviors
- Changes in appetite
- Trouble at school
- Mood changes
- Refusing to go to school
- Digestive problems
- Problems with concentration
- Social withdrawal
4 Causes of Childhood Anxiety
While the causes are not entirely understood, a combination of several possible factors may serve as an explanation;
- Genetics. Brain wiring and different genes can manifest anxiety symptoms.
- Learned fear. Childhood anxiety can develop through direct experience with fear or witnessing or observing a frightful event.
- Environment. Factors such as chronic stress, experiencing trauma, and anxious parenting may play a part.
- Psychological factors. A child’s temperament and learned coping strategies can affect their ability to handle stress.
7 Parenting Mistakes that Make Childhood Anxiety Worse (and What To Do Instead)
1. Evaluate your response
Parents may not realize it, but their responses and behaviors can actually reinforce or contribute to their children’s anxiety. For example, when your child comes to you about their concerns, you may respond with your own level of distress. This is not surprising since it’s incredibly distressing to observe your child’s struggles. However, try to refrain from feeding into their anxiety by being more aware of your response. Indeed, the first step in helping your children is increasing your awareness. It can be hard to change your behavior, but becoming more aware of your own anxiety can help your children manage theirs.
2. Not encouraging them
It’s awful to witness a child’s anxiety and feel helpless about resolving their concerns. Yet, many parents make the mistake of not encouraging them to grow. For example, if a child has anxiety about going to school, their parents may enroll them in online learning. While you don’t want to push your kids, you also want to find a balance in teaching them coping strategies to overcome their anxieties. Grounding tools like naming colors of objects in their surrounding environment, washing their face when stressed, or breathing techniques can teach them how to approach stressful situations with a reliable toolkit.
3. Pushing them too far
Opposite of the previous mistake, many parents forgo the balance and force their children to face their fears far too early. Even if your intention is positive, your delivery can backfire, worsening your child’s anxiety. Instead of using the tough love approach, teach your children how to approach a fear in a series of small steps while encouraging them. You can even use a less frightening scenario to start and guide them through each step. Additionally, previewing environments that cause their anxiety together may help decrease their anticipatory anxiety.
4. Believing they are lying
If you believe your children are lying or using anxiety as an excuse, it can damage your relationship with your child and exacerbate the problem. This distrust can also come across as insensitivity to your child’s valid concerns. Rather than believing they are lying, learn to see the world through their eyes. When you understand how their anxiety affects their day-to-day, you will become more compassionate and responsive rather than reactive.
5. Advocating too much
Parents have a natural inkling to protect their children, but their eagerness to advocate can worsen their children’s anxiety. For example, if your child discusses a fear about making friends, you may feel tempted to become overinvolved or overcontrol the situation. However, this eagerness can make them feel you lack confidence in their ability to handle their concerns. Instead, try communicating and discussing possible solutions together. Ask for their opinion and help steer them towards better coping mechanisms.
6. Refrain from reassuring
Providing reassurance to your child’s concerns may seem harmless, but it can lead to distrust. For example, if your child experiences bullying, and you reassure them it was a one-off encounter, you’re setting unrealistic expectations. If your child experiences bullying again, not only will it eliminate trust between you, but you’re also hurting opportunities to teach your children how to cope with their anxieties. Instead, offer emotional support for their concerns and tell them it’s okay to feel the way they do. Then start teaching them they can survive anxious situations. This fosters independence, emotional resilience, and exposure to the anxious event itself.
7. Anxiety is treatable
Childhood anxiety can be challenging for both the parent and child. As such, you may feel out of options and overwhelmed with possible solutions, treatment plans, and strategies. But if you indicate that nothing can help, it teaches your child that anxiety is too frightening and uncontrollable to manage. They then grow to believe anxiety is a part of their identity and any sign of fear or failure, should be avoided rather than approached with confidence. Therefore, if you observe ongoing anxiety in your children, openly discuss their feelings and talk them through the process of slowly approaching their concerns. This open dialogue will remove any embarrassment or shame of discussing their fears and show them it’s normal to feel anxious.
Childhood anxiety is a stressful journey, but it is one you and your child can overcome. Using the tips addressed in this article will show your children their anxiety is manageable, controllable, and treatable. And above all, if you’re struggling to cope, it is worth speaking to a mental health professional to discuss available options.
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