What should do I do about my anxious child? I’ve had to ask myself this question question many times. Perhaps you have as well.
The first thing I wondered was “Is this normal?”
After all, every child experiences some level of anxiety and worry. Some kids may be overly eager to please teachers and authority figures, leading to insecurity about their performance in school or sports. Others may be anxious about their growing awareness of social group status, acceptance by peers, and safety.
Yes, much of this is normal and developmentally appropriate, but when should I be concerned?
Anxiety is considered a disorder not based on what the child is worried about, but on how that worry is interfering with the child’s daily functioning.
Here are some red flags:
- When worry is extreme for seemingly insignificant situations;
- When a son or child is avoiding normal situations, such as school or family outings;
- When coaxing a child is ineffective, even after reassurance has been given;
- Headaches, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping;
- Perfectionism and very high self-standards; the child feels that nothing they do is good enough.
Anxiety can cross the line from a normal/developmental reaction to being excessive when it becomes a hindrance to the child’s well-being. Seeking professional advice at this point is recommended. Sometimes there may be underlying medical problems that are triggering the anxiety. For example, anxious thoughts can result from an infection that is causing inflammation in the brain, and studies have linked an imbalance of microbes in the gut to anxiety. A thorough medical evaluation may be called for.
Depending on the degree of your child’s anxiety, you may at times feel that all hope is lost. Yet, there are a number of strategies that parents can employ to help relieve anxiety in a child, whether or not professional assistance has been sought.
Tips to relieve anxiety
First, as parents we should avoid reassuring children that there is nothing to worry about. If there is nothing wrong, why do they feel this way? Trying to reassure them that there is nothing to worry about may lead them to feel helpless in their own skin. Kids need to know that worrying can be good and serves a purpose. We’re all built with an alarm mechanism for danger and it is very helpful to us. Worry and fear have value!
Here are some helpful steps you can take right now
1) Give worries a name. For example, call it “Frenzy Fear” or “Worry Warrior,” or as we call it in our family “Krank.” Krank lives in the brain and is responsible for protection, but sometimes Krank gets out of control and gives false alarms. When this happens we have to talk some sense into Krank.
Giving worries, as well as fears, a name helps on many levels. Kids can picture fear and worry as being something separate from them. They can imagine squashing Krank and then kicking him to the curb. It also helps separate the child from the fear response and lets him or her regain some logical thinking. Fear and worry trigger the survival mechanisms in our brain, and this can be helpful. But when worry and fear rule, emotional and physical reactions actually hinder the logical part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). When so triggered, the flight or fight response takes over, and unfortunately, most logical thought flies out the window.
2) Teach your child to be a “thought detective.” Use the 3C’s: Catch your thoughts, Collect evidence, and Challenge your thoughts. (GoZen.com)
To accomplish this, have your child “catch” their thinking and then identify the thoughts. Ask what the actual worry or fear is. Next, where is the evidence to support it? Then, ask your child if it is true.
Kids can have a debate within their mind. Teach them to move from worry and fear to the truth. Aim to have them move from “What if?” thinking toward “What is?”
Sometimes I guide my child in thinking about a worst case scenario and then developing a plan for that situation. I ask him to think about what would be likely to happen in this case. Knowing that he feels prepared for the worst case helps him to feel confident and more in control of other possible outcomes.
3) Relaxation strategies can be very useful. One of the best ones is slow and gentle breathing. Breathing slowly and repeatedly can reduce the fight or flight fear response and help a child recover his or her logical thinking.
Resources for you to explore
Parents, remember that you are not alone in your struggle with an anxious child. You may or may not need to seek a professional evaluation, but regardless, there are strategies that can assist you in helping your son or daughter navigate negative thoughts and ensnaring fears. You are your child’s best mentor and biggest cheerleader.
These sources were helpful for this article and I have relied on some of them for bringing about positive change in our family:
Kelly Click is a homeschooling mother of three. She has a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Counseling and is a full-time pastor’s wife in Southern California.
Photo used is a stock image