First-day school jitters, battling scary monsters at night, or losing a favorite toy are all situations that cause anxiety in children. And while anxiety is a healthy part of human development, too much can raise a red flag. In fact, by 2020, 5.6 million children were globally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and this number continues to grow. But, as a parent, how do you know if what they’re experiencing is an anxiety disorder and not just stress or the terrible twos? In this article, you’ll learn common symptoms to look out for and how to help a child with anxiety.
Childhood Anxiety 101: 10 Symptoms to Watch For
While each child displays symptoms uniquely and each anxiety disorder has a different symptom profile, there are a few common symptoms to observe for early onset help.
- Frequent meltdowns
- Poor concentration
- School withdrawal
- Change in eating habits
- Avoidance behaviors
- Increased clinginess
- Constantly worrying
- Moodiness, aggression, and/or irritation
- Physical concerns, such as headaches, tummy aches, muscle aches, shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, etc.
- Sleep disturbance, including night terrors, difficulty falling asleep, frequent wake-ups, and sleepwalking
Below are common childhood anxiety disorders that accompany many of the above symptoms.
7 Childhood Anxiety Disorders Explained
1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Children with GAD experience consistent worry about many things almost every day. For example, they may feel anxious about world problems, riding the school bus, recess, sleeping, eating in public, or the safety of loved ones. Unfortunately, this persistent worry makes it challenging for children to relax, sleep, or concentrate in school.
2. Separation anxiety disorder
While it’s common for most children to experience separation anxiety from birth to three years old, children who don’t outgrow this experience separation anxiety disorder. With an average onset of 7 years old, children will feel very anxious about being separated from their parents. This anxiety can result in school withdrawal, trouble falling asleep alone, refusal to engage in any activities without the parent, or worry about a loved one while separated.
3. Panic disorder
More common in teens, children with panic disorder experience frequent and unexpected panic attacks. When they occur, children will feel like they’re dying from symptoms like a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, and shortness of breath. After the first attack, many fear they will experience another and will avoid places that remind them of that feeling.
4. Social anxiety disorder
Like adults, children with social anxiety disorder feel very self-conscious around other people. Whether it’s performing in front of a class, engaging with peers, or meeting new people, these children experience intense anxiety in social situations.
5. Selective mutism
Children with selective mutism experience severe anxiety that prevents them from speaking and communicating in certain social settings, like school, meeting new people or relatives they rarely see. However, they can interact and communicate in situations where they feel comfortable and relaxed.
6. Specific phobias
Children with specific phobias have an extreme fear of something that isn’t dangerous. The fear is uncontrollable and causes severe anxiety whenever they’re around it or thinking about it. Common fears include insects, water, the dark, heights, vomiting, blood, shots, loud noises, or crowded rooms.
7. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Children with OCD engage in ritual behaviors or compulsions to temporarily relieve distressing thoughts and obsessions. For example, if a child is worried about germs, they may repeatedly wash their hands. Other rituals include organizing objects, locking the door, checking the lights, or checking under their bed. While these rituals help the child feel less anxious, unfortunately, their distressing thoughts return, and the cycle repeats.
How to Help a Child with Anxiety: 6 Tips for Parents
1. Listen and empathize with their concerns
One of the best tips on how to help a child with anxiety is to allow them to vent their concerns. Rather than dismissing their worries or fears, receive what they’re saying with an open heart and empathize. Empathy is instrumental in reducing mental health stigma and building emotional regulation and self-acceptance. Additionally, teach them about anxiety and what they’re experiencing. Creating an open dialogue will increase your bond and their confidence in coming to you for future help.
2. Eliminate avoidance
No parent wants to see their child experience anxiety. But the best way to help them overcome their concerns is to help them manage their anxiety rather than removing the trigger. For example, if they’re worried about eating in public, teach them how to manage it. Avoiding places that cause their anxiety reinforces it long term, and the child learns an unhealthy coping mechanism. Therefore, model healthy behaviors to cope and teach them how to slowly confront their fear.
3. Practice mindfulness
A wonderful coping mechanism is mindfulness. Indeed, tools like deep breathing, grounding techniques, or aromatherapy teach the child positive coping mechanisms to manage their anxiety. For example, when they’re having a panic attack or feeling stressed, ask them to name five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. It will ground them in the present moment and calm their fight-flight-or-freeze response.
4. Think things through together
Like adults, children benefit from talking through what could happen if their fear or concern came true and how they would handle it. For example, if a child is anxious about a tornado, create a plan of action. Talk about how they would grab their favorite toy and walk to the basement hand in hand with you, and they would never be alone. And after the tornado is over, you both would walk upstairs and watch a happy movie or eat a fun treat to reward facing their fear. Many children benefit from discussing a plan to reduce uncertainty.
5. Be mindful of your reaction
Often, we don’t realize that our tone of voice and body language sends the wrong message to our children. For example, if your child discusses their fear of riding the school bus, and you react in a worried manner, you may subconsciously reinforce their anxiety. In other words, your reaction may tell them there is something to be afraid of. Therefore, respond calmly and work through their concern by asking leading questions. What happened that made you feel anxious? How are you feeling about riding the bus tomorrow? It will encourage them to talk about their feelings and help you pinpoint the cause without reinforcing their fear.
6. Discuss anxiety, realistically
It’s heartbreaking to witness your child experiencing anxiety, but you also can’t promise them that they’ll never experience those icky feelings again. For example, they may fail a test again or hurt themselves by playing with their friends. But the more you reinforce their confidence and strength, the more emotionally resilient they will become. You can discuss how facing their fears will help them slowly feel better over time. It will teach them how to manage their concerns while becoming self-sufficient and learning how to handle future stressors.
While anxiety is common, too much can point to a severe problem. Therefore if you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder, speak with a mental health professional so they can receive early help. A therapist will teach you how to help a child with anxiety and create a treatment plan that reduces their symptoms and models positive coping mechanisms.
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