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Childhood Anxiety: How to Help Your Kids Manage

Jill Reed Siroty
April 2, 2015

Tips for helping your family and caregivers manage kids' struggles with anxiety.

You're trying to coax your son out the door to get to school for an important test, but he just won't go. Your daughter was invited to stay at a friend's house for a sleepover, but she wants to stay home. Kids sometimes experience situations that make them anxious, but when should you start to worry about childhood anxiety? The National Institutes of Mental Health says parents may need to intervene when normal anxiety turns into "an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations." When that nervousness about a new teacher turns into refusing to go to school, your child's anxiety might be getting more serious.

How Do I Know If My Child Is Experiencing Anxiety?
Psychologist Dr. Lori Rockmore of Specialized Psychological Services has spent her career treating anxious kids, and says that parents need to look for behaviors that indicate anxiety. "Some children will show symptoms like headaches, stomachaches or shortness of breath," says Dr. Rockmore. Other children, according to San Francisco-based therapist Dr. Charles Brinamen, have trouble making transitions or throw tantrums.

Other children want to avoid situations that they're nervous about, trying to convince you that they can't go to school or to a party. Some children, according to Dr. Rockmore, may seek reassurance, or ask "what if" questions.

How Can I Help My Anxious Child?
To help conquer childhood anxiety, it's important that caregivers don't allow kids to avoid things that make them nervous. "This is where many people get it wrong," says Dr. Rockmore. "If you allow a child who is anxious about school to stay home, you perpetuate that anxiety, and it becomes more difficult to eventually get them back to school. It's important to teach kids that fears are things they can conquer." You can help them analyze what specifically they're afraid of and work on possible solutions. For example, your daughter might be afraid of raising her hand because she worries that if she gives a wrong answer, other kids will make fun of her. Try role-playing the scenario with her. If she does give a wrong answer, what would a friend say? The teacher? How could your daughter respond?

Dr. Brinamen says it's essential for parents to take their child's anxiety seriously without minimizing or making fun of it. This shows your child that you respect her feelings. Remember that when your child throws a temper tantrum as you're walking out the door for date night, it's not because she's trying to ruin your night. She doesn't have the words to tell you that she's afraid you're not coming back. It doesn't mean you should stay home for the night, but you can address her fears before you leave. Let her know of a special activity she can do with her caregiver -- such as read a favorite book -- and that you will be home in a few hours. Remember, if you do stay home because she's anxious, it will make the next time, when you might really have to leave, that much more difficult for all of you.

For more about how to deal with separation anxiety, read Child Care Challenges: Separation Anxiety.

It's important for caregivers to be on the same page in dealing with an anxious child. Parents and caregivers -- babysitters, grandparents, nannies -- can schedule meetings to discuss the behaviors they are seeing in the child. Caregivers need to be taking the same approach with the child, continuing to support her through fearful situations without allowing avoidance.

Where Can I Find Additional Help for My Anxious Child?
When is it time to seek outside help to get an anxious child back on track? When caregivers see what Dr. Rockmore calls "functional impairment" -- difficulty sleeping, interference with friendships, academic struggles -- it may be time to look into resources to help your child. Here are some places where you can seek support for an anxious child:

  • Your child's school counselor or social worker. This person can observe your child's behavior within the school environment, meet with your child privately or even offer limited therapeutic services to give your child better coping skills.
  • Books. The Association for Behavior and Cognitive Therapies offers a search engine for books on topics including anxiety.
  • The AADA. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides resources for parents and caregivers, including the ability to search for a therapist.
  • Other parents. Other children -- and, therefore, their parents -- have similar struggles. Having a good support system of parents who have been there and can offer suggestions and resources can make a big difference.

According to Dr. Rockmore, "Environmental situations, like a particularly tough teacher, peer pressures or social situations, can trigger anxiety in kids." Once the situation has resolved itself, kids can often move on with less anxiety and with pride in having worked through the anxiety. Helping your child through her anxiety doesn't have to be something that increases your anxiety, too!

For more on anxiety, read Child Care Challenges: Separation Anxiety.

Jill Reed Siroty is a freelance writer and part-time college professor, living in the New York Metropolitan area. She is a mom of two boys and a somewhat demanding fluffy white dog. Jill's blog takes a lighthearted look at life, parenting and family.

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