4 Effective Strategies to Reduce Your Child’s Anxiety
Stephanie Owen, LMFT
Chloe, 2-years-old, constantly cries as her parents go out the door for work every day. Tristan, 7-years-old, is a straight A student, but destroys everything in the house and fights with his siblings almost everyday. Martha, 10-years-old, often snaps and is easily irritated. These behaviors all show different behavioral challenges, except with one common denominator: anxiety.
Anxiety in children often appears in a variety of ways as it is a function of physiological triggers to a real or perceived threat. Common reactions are when our body shows signs of fight, flight or freeze, which is why some children withdraw from certain situations that trigger fears and others react with aggression or freeze with panic.
Even with the best of intentions, parents often make the mistake of enabling children’s anxiety. I’m here to help you be more informed of how to spot the signs of anxiety, children’s emotional triggers and teach them coping skills to manage their feelings and thrive independently.
Here are four useful strategies to learn and apply:
1. Awareness of the common signs of child anxiety.
Childhood anxiety can be seen disguised in many different masks. Since most kids have a hard time expressing their feelings with words, their anxiety is expressed with emotional dysregulation. Other common red flags to recognize are if children have difficulty sleeping in their own room, being away from parents, psychosomatic complaints (frequent body aches and pains), and avoiding certain activities.
2. Identify the trigger points.
Children react differently to various scenarios and triggers. It is imperative for you to recognize your child’s baseline. It is normal for children to experience and feel anxious at times and yet it becomes worrisome when it hinders their daily life. While anxiety can be influenced by a genetic component, it can also be triggered by environmental factors, like academic achievement stress, social pressures, losses, transitions, abuse or violence.
3. Common anxiety and worries of children across ages.
Below is a list of common fears and worries children may express across different ages. Notice that most of these are related to developmental changes and levels of maturity.
Toddlers (1-2 years) – Separation anxiety is common typically until 2 years old and can last until 6 years old. A young child is generally dependent on adults for caretaking, so being away from them is a cause for alarm. These young children feel most safe with structure and routine as changes in the environment may cause concern.
Preschool aged (3-4 years) – With growth and an increase in brain development, their imagination and ability to foresee negative things happening to them or others increases. Their imagination becomes more vivid with monsters and animals appearing and other scary thoughts where you find them becoming afraid of the dark and seek comfort in the middle of the night. The level of separation anxiety from parents increases alongside their increasing independence.
School aged (5-9 years) – Children at this age feel anxious about being physically hurt and because of the idea of “bad people.” Notice that these are reflected as children begin to imagine negative events based not in reality. You will hear them share concerns about ghosts, witches and other supernatural characters.
Pre-teens (10-12 years) – Most are worried about school related concerns, like academic performance and fear of exams, as well as physical appearance and peer pressures. As they become more of a separate and unique individual, they learn to compare who they are from others which creates stress.
Teenagers (13-19 years) – Personal relationships can be a source of anxiety at this age. As they become their own person, they still need to be guided by adults to help with school and personal challenges, including with peers. Teens may voice concerns over political matters as they become aware of the world and movement towards adulthood.
4. Coping mechanisms to help your anxious child.
There are a number of exercises and strategies that can be done at home and at school to help children manage and be in control of their anxious thought patterns:
Find out what their fears are - Ask open-ended questions about their fears to understand what they’re going through more clearly
Be honest and validate - Try to avoid saying, “It will be fine,” which shuts your child’s worries down and instead validate their feelings with, “I hear how nervous you feel and I feel that way sometimes, too”
Help them practice coping skills to tolerate anxiety - Make a worry jar can reduce their anxiety by having a place to put the worries, encourage journaling out their concerns, or trying progressive muscle relaxation together by squeezing a stress ball and releasing it to more distinctly feel the relaxation
Monitor and manage your own anxiety - This is a huge one because your kids anxiety is a mirror to yours and they are figuring out how to cope by following your lead. Explore what coping tool works best for you and broadcast them out loud when using it for your kids to learn how what do when they feel the same
Childhood anxiety can be all-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. It is manageable with the awareness, understanding and coping tools to build resiliency. When kids know how to recognize symptoms of anxiety and break their emotional patterns they can cope independently to be more in control.
I’d love to know more from you! What another ways have you found that have helped you better manage your anxious child/ren? What other approaches would you add to this list?