By Stephanie Thomas
Remember the first time your baby fell? Maybe he’d just learned to walk and was taking a few brave steps down the hall when it happened. No doubt you scooped him up, covered his head with kisses and wiped away his tears.
In just minutes, he’d moved on. You, on the other hand, probably worked for a while to squelch that little twinge of pain every parent feels on behalf of their kid.
And if one of your children struggle with anxiety, that twinge never quite goes away. You may feel helpless in your desire to see your son or daughter at peace again. Thankfully, loving action combined with a little knowledge goes a long way.
Anxiety in Children Must Be Taken Seriously
Oftentimes parents and teachers are quick to dismiss a child’s anxiety as just another part of being a kid.1 Since we all must work to manage our emotions, you might be tempted to think that your child simply hasn’t matured enough. He’ll outgrow it.
If only this were true. A child’s anxiety, left untreated, could develop into depression by the time he becomes a teenager.1 By ignoring the symptoms of your son’s struggle, he may be missing out on the opportunity to get better.2
Spot the Signs of Anxiety
Perhaps you do take childhood anxiety seriously but aren’t sure how to determine regular levels of stress from stress that should trouble you.
Studies show that kids as young as six may show signs of anxiety and 25 percent of teenagers struggle with anxiety at some point between the start of middle school and high school graduation.3 Keep a keen eye on your kid as you look for the following:
- Worry that won’t go away2
- An overtired child who can’t sleep2
- Regular body tightening and an inability to relax3
What Causes Anxiety in Children?
You might wonder, “Does my son hurt because of me?” The answer is a complicated one. Kids who struggle to manage their emotions could do so because of chemical responses in the brain or an overreaction in the body to stressful situations — neither of which parents can control.2
But childhood anxiety also stems from a person’s genetic makeup, home environment and observation of others.2 If you suspect that you play a role in your son’s developing anxiety, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, recognize that you may be able to help correct it. Even parents whose only contribution was to pass along anxious genes can choose to be open about their own struggle and demonstrate healthy ways of coping.4
Take Appropriate Action to Help Your Child Overcome Anxiety
Your arms were magical healers when your children were little, and your influence is powerful still. You have the ability to speak life into your child, to challenge him, to give him grace and to get him proper help when his needs outpace your understanding.
In practical terms, you can take action both before and after your child experiences anxiety.
Let’s say your son — who used to love playing outside and all the running, jumping and climbing that went with it — dreads the outdoors. He blocks the exits, pitches a fit and seems genuinely petrified. He’s supposed to attend a birthday party next week and, sure enough, the invitation lists the location as your son’s new personal enemy: the park.
1. Do this in anticipation of an anxiety-building event:
- Commit to going. Skipping out on activities that stress your child only teaches him to bail when he feels overwhelmed — not the best foundation for a well-rounded life.4 So go ahead and let the host know you’ll be there. Just don’t tell your son until you’re on your way. Sound harsh? Not really. By waiting you’re ensuring that his pre-park worries last only minutes instead of days.4
- Share what you know.4 You might say, “We’re going to celebrate Logan’s birthday today! His mom says you guys will eat pizza and have cake. I wanted to let you know his party is at Zilker Park. They have swings and a slide and a big hill for running up and down. They also have a path for walking and benches where you can sit and take a rest. What do you think about that?”
- If your son has something to say, be sure to give him social clues that encourage him to keep talking. Keep in mind that some kids are reluctant to express their concerns and worry that you may think less of them.2 Regardless of what your son tells you, be sure that your words communicate:
- “I respect your feelings.”
- “I believe in you.”
- “I’m here for you.”4
2. Do this to help your child plan for future bouts of anxiety:
- Teach him to imagine facing and defeating his fears. Experts recommend learning all you can about your child’s specific disorder as well as practical tips for coping when the bad feelings hit. Information in hand, walk your son through a myriad of imaginary stressful scenarios. Brainstorm together to come up with specific steps he can take to work through his worry and move toward peace.5For example, the next time he walks outside, he could plan ahead to:
- Close his eyes
- Take a long, deep breath
- Actively notice the sounds and feelings of nature, like the birds chirping and the wind blowing
- Stay in this state as he works to calm his mind
With proper attention, your son won’t have to just dream of beating anxiety, he can actually and fully kick it to the curb.2 But that may mean you’ll need to use your adult wisdom and parental love to get him the help you can’t fully provide. And that’s OK.
1 DeNoon, Daniel J. Recognizing Childhood Depression and Anxiety. WebMD, July 31, 2006.
2 Anxiety Disorders. KidsHealth.org, March 2014.
3 Tracy, Natasha. Anxiety and Children: Symptoms, Causes of Childhood Anxiety. Healthy Place, June 29, 2016.
4 Goldstein, Clark. What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious. Accessed November 13, 2017.
5 Creating a MAP. AnxietyBC, Accessed November 13, 2017.Share