Anxiety can be a problem at any age. Babies as young as eight or nine months exhibit normal anxiety when they are separated from their parents. Children of all ages may be made anxious by storms, dogs, or the dark. It's a part of life. However, there are times when anxiety becomes more than a momentary or temporary thing in a child's life.
Signs of Anxiety
"Signs of greater than normal anxiety in children include being tense and worried, often resulting in almost constant need for reassurance by adults," says Philip Baese, MD, a board certified adult and child/adolescent psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute and chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University of Utah Health. "It is important not to simply dismiss their worries, but it is also important not to overreact or excessively reinforce a child's worries."
Anxiety may manifest itself with physical symptoms in some children. Kids may complain of stomach aches, nausea, or even vomiting. If a parent suspects their child's symptoms may be related to anxiety, it's important to evaluate the circumstances of when they occur. Is it always at school time? Or when they deal with a certain person? Is it when they are going to be away from a parent?
"It can be difficult to sort out illness, like flu, from anxiety related symptoms, so parents should be ready to watch over time and more objective observations," Baese says. "If physical symptoms turn out to be more related to anxiety, adults can help the child to appropriately recognize and label those sensations as such, which can help to reduce the problem."
Here are three steps to take to help a child overcome anxiety:
- Help identify their feelings
They need to be able to correctly name what's happening. While some children may want to avoid talking about it, it’s important to help them face the issue in order to manage it.
"It’s important for children to be able to accurately identify and label their emotions,” Baese says. “Talking with others is how most of us learn how to do this over time. Talking to kids about anxiety will not cause the problem. It’s important to return to conversations about anxiety and not reinforce avoidance or ignore the problems that anxiety may be worsening."
- Create a consistent and comforting environment
Reducing the likelihood of anxiety involves setting up an environment that is both consistent and comforting. Your interactions with your child can help soothe anxiety. Make sure they know you are always willing to listen, that they are allowed to make mistakes, and that feelings are never frivolous or silly.
"Make sure your child has a good routine that they follow," Baese says. "Also, be consistent with discipline and how you handle problems. Anxiety is more likely to arise if a child feels unsure of what they can expect."
- Work through it
When anxiety does arise, there are a lot of ways to help a child work through it. Sometimes all it takes is a distraction—like reading a book, exercising, or doing a craft or activity. Self-soothing practices like a hot bath, a warm pack, listening to calming music, or doing yoga can also help.
"You may want to help your child come up with small scripts for them to repeat when anxious," Baese says. "Simple breathing exercises can help them relax as well.”
When to get help
There are times when anxiety is too much for you and your child to handle alone. If it is interfering with activities or relationships, it may be a good idea to get help from a qualified mental health care professional.
"Starting with your primary care physician is always a great place,” Baese says. “They can screen for specific forms of anxiety and help you decide the next step.”