We think of childhood as a carefree time of play and fun, but in reality, anxiety can manifest in children at nearly any age. We’re taking a look at some of the causes and symptoms of childhood anxiety, along with tactics and techniques you can start using today to help your child stress less.
Causes of Anxiety
Many studies have been done into what causes anxiety in children. Some have looked at genetics, while others explore environmental factors. Abbe Sechrist, a counselor at Northside Mental Health in Indianapolis, says that the root cause of anxiety is likely a combination of both.
“Our society pushes us past our biology,” Sechrist says. “We haven’t evolved as quickly as our society has, and the demands it puts on children to get perfect grades, look or dress a certain way, have certain friends, play sports and master musical instruments, are extremely overwhelming.”
No Clue? No Worries!
Unsure if your child is struggling with anxiety? Keep in mind that anxiety, even in young children, is totally normal. In fact, standard levels of anxiety are an indicator of healthy development. “Good anxiety forces us to work hard, prepare and problem solve,” Sechrist says. “But at times we think, ‘This feeling is so bad; I have to get rid of it.’ In actuality, it’s very normal.”
So, when does it become a problem? Jillian Wise, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist with Children’s Resource Group, says that parents need to look at the impact of their child’s anxiety. “If it means that they can’t function at school, or they can’t make it through a trip to the grocery store, we start to feel it’s affecting the child’s ability to get through their day.”
You know your child better than anyone, so you’re likely to be the first person to feel something may be off. However, the signs of childhood anxiety can often be mistaken for other issues. Here are some of the most common:
- Trouble with separation
- Frequent tantrums or meltdowns
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Regression in some behaviors, like toilet training
- Anger, stubbornness or obstinacy
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
There are many ways parents can be proactive in helping their children manage symptoms of anxiety and develop healthy coping skills.
Children often lack the ability or the vocabulary to explain to you what’s wrong. Talk to them on their level, using words they understand. Sechrist says that listening is just as important. “Listening and being available as a non-judgmental sounding board is so important,” she says. “Hear what they’re saying, and ask if they know how to solve it. If they don’t, that’s when you step in to support them.”
With children, it’s important to practice what you preach. You can’t expect them to feel calm and worry-free when you’re throwing off your own anxious vibes. Anna Merrill, a psychologist with Children’s Resource Group, says that modeling appropriate behavior is key.“Parents can’t expect a child to go into stressful situations if they aren’t modeling for their kids how they manage their own anxiety,” Merrill says. “Just talking about it and modeling what your own coping skills look like can be really helpful for young kids.”
When it comes to helping your kids stay calm, just remember “M&M” — mindfulness and meditation. Helping your children learn to be present and focused can give them the skills they need to reduce their stress and manage the anxiety they feel. It may be setting “phone-free” hours to keep them away from anxiety-inducing social media, it might be a family board game night, or a few moments of quiet meditation with a soothing sound machine.
- Reach Out
If you do feel that your child’s anxiety is impacting their ability to function on a daily basis, it’s time to seek help. Merrill says your pediatrician is your first line of defense. “Your primary care physician is where you can talk about what’s going on and how significant, frequent or extreme it is,” she says. “They might then refer you to a psychologist for testing or treatment.” Additionally, get to know your child’s school counselor, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It can be frightening and painful to watch your child deal with the difficulties of anxiety. Remember that, at any age, some anxiety is normal and healthy. If it becomes a problem, there are many strategies you can employ to help them manage their feelings, and many skilled professionals ready and waiting to help.