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?

The Only 6 Back-to-School Tips You Will Ever Need

Stephanie Owen, LMFT

The beginning of a new school year brings a lot of challenges and adjustments --- new teachers, different class schedule, and new school demands. This can be one of the most stressful times of the year for parents, and even more so for your children.  Planning, preparing and patience are the keys to a better and more manageable back-to-school transition.

Here’s a quick round-up of effective tips for a smooth start to the school year:

1. Bedtime is quite a big deal.

Children thrive when they consistently get enough sleep. When children don’t sleep enough, it makes it harder for them to control their emotions. The problem most parents have is how to help them sleep. One way you can do this is to ensure a predictable bedtime routine by making it a priority. Preschool-aged children should be getting about 10-13 hours of sleep, school-aged children (6-13 years old), 9-11 hours, and teens, at least 8-10 hours. Regular activity every night signals their body to slow down and prepare for a restful sleep. Turn off all overly stimulating activities like gadgets and toys (tablets, smartphones, video games). Encourage quiet activities instead, such as books, calming music and podcasts: Storynory - stories, such as myths, original stories and poems, Bedtime History - inspirational and educational stories, and Peace Out - relaxation and mindfulness stories.

2.  Make a positive morning habit.

Creating a checklist of tasks with your children on what to do from the time they wake up time to the time they leave makes a big difference. Getting your children involved instills the value of responsibility for them early on AND reduces overall stress because you’re working together, instead of against each other. Most importantly, find a time to connect and bond each day. It takes as little as 10 minutes to make an impact. You can have a quick chat at breakfast reminiscing on a favorite time together or sharing excitement about what is coming up. For younger kids, a cuddle while dressing them up or ask them to help you prepare or make something will create connection, too. Turn off all sources of distraction (you will get to those emails as soon as you get to work, I promise!) and focus on your child knowing this will make a lasting change.

3.  Get organized ahead of chaos.

Plan ahead. Introduce a daily routine with as little as 15 minutes each night planning and preparing for the next day. A checklist will be helpful to begin with until the essential steps become a habit. For younger kids, you can create a visual board of the to-do’s with drawn pictures or photos from a magazine of each morning and afternoon task. A family calendar is helpful to track academic and extracurricular school activities, as well family plans. Downloadable apps, like My Study Life and Time Tree, have shareable access to make sure no one misses out.

4.  Watch out for back-to-school anxiety.

Most children are excited to start a new school year, while some can be nervous and dread it leading to draining energy and increasing anxiety. Reasons may vary from separation anxiety, bullying, and perfectionism, to name a few. Allow your children to talk about their anxiety -- and no, it will not get worse if you talk about it. Listen and normalize what they’re going through by sharing a time when you felt similarly. They will likely feel relieved and less alone. If they’re open to hearing solutions, give them the tool of square breathing, which is a helpful strategy to focus on their breath and stay grounded throughout the day. It’s easy to do: Make a square in the air or on paper. Trace one side of the box and breathe in for 4 seconds, continue to trace the other side of the box and breathe for 4 seconds, and continue again for the other two sides. Practice it with them, too!  

5.  After-school routines make a huge difference.

It is important to discuss after-school routines that work for your children. Ideally, it’s best to  have a quiet area at home with a comfortable study table and chair in a well-lit space that’s personalized and inviting for them to want to use. Bring in bright colors, pegboards for organizing, and all the supplies needed for them to feel equipped and look forward to their after school routine. What other ideas do your children have to create their space?

6.  Parent-Teacher relationship is crucial.

School is your child’s second home. It is crucial for parents to build strong relationships with teachers. Work with your teachers to help them understand your child’s unique personality, strengths, talents, and interests as their learning patterns emerge. Just like all relationships, they take time to build. Similarly, your parent-teacher relationship won’t happen overnight. It is built with constant communication, collaboration and shared goals.

What else would you add to this list? Share comments below, we’d love learn how else you’re creating a smooth and stress-free back-to-school transition. Share with others and tag a friend who could use this, too!