Anxiety is considered to be the no. 1 mental health concern facing America’s children. Even if a child does not have a diagnosed “anxiety disorder,” anxiety can be problematic enough to impact their quality of life. All parents can benefit from understanding how anxiety uniquely affects children, as it is an inevitable part of childhood.
Parents are tasked with a difficult responsibility when it comes to recognizing the signs of anxiety in their children. Children do not necessarily exhibit anxiety in the same manner as do adults. Children’s cognitive functioning is still developing, so they do not process or interpret their world in the way adults do. They also lack the vocabulary to articulate when they are in distress.
Because children may not understand or be able to communicate their distress, it is most likely to manifest in their behavior. Some children will exhibit obvious signs of emotional distress, such as frequent crying, being easily frustrated or irritable. However, one often overlooked or misinterpreted symptom is anger outbursts. Outbursts of anger are often dismissed as oppositional behavior when anxiety is actually the underlying cause.
Anxious children may also display a broad array of physical symptoms. Children may make frequent visits to the school nurse for somatic complaints. Headaches and stomachaches may be worry expressed through the body.
The most hidden signs of anxiety, however, are when a child’s anxiety is cloaked in over-performance. It is hard to identify anxiety when a child is “high functioning.” Anxiety may propel these children to excel academically, never get in trouble, or upset anyone. It is easy to see how the signs can be missed if a child is making good grades, behaving, and is well-liked. It is a problem a lot of parents may think they wish they had. But, if the motivation for the child’s success is driven by anxiety, it will eventually have consequences to their well-being.
Once you become aware that your child is experiencing anxiety, there is much a parent can do. Although parenting, in general, does not cause a child’s anxiety (nor can it cure it), a parent’s approach can certainly promote resilience to anxiety.
Maybe the most influential parenting behavior that a parent can employ is to manage the intensity of their own emotional responses. Try to limit your own display of distress, particularly when your child is emotionally triggered. Although their intensity can feel “contagious,” try not to match their level of emotional energy. Stay calm but engaged and empathic. Model with calmness and confidence that everything will be okay. A parent having an intense emotional reaction makes it less likely that their child can bring down their own intensity.
Partner with your child to problem-solve, but limit over-control and over-protection. Resist the impulse to completely take over or eliminate their problems. Not only do you rob them of the ability to learn how to manage themselves, but you may also inadvertently send the message that you do not believe they can handle this. Allow room for your child to learn to manage some frustration and disappointment. In each situation, ask yourself, “Am I doing for my child or with my child?” Then enthusiastically reinforce their courage to face and work through anxiety-provoking situations.
Investigate effective coping strategies. These will, of course, be different for each child and involves some trial and error. Some children respond well to developing coping statements such as “I can handle this, even though it is hard right now,” or “I believe in myself, even if I am scared.” If your child is physically affected, help them find ways to calm their body. Deep breathing, short meditations, or physical exercise may reduce the physiological symptoms to a more manageable level. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There is a wealth of information available for parents in search of coping strategies. The book I recommend most often for this purpose is Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar E. Chanski. Or, consider consulting with a professional to help you tailor strategies to your specific concerns.
Anxiety in children can present unique challenges for parents and it may, at times, seem overwhelming. With the resources available for parents, the prognosis for a child with anxiety is quite good. There is every reason to have confidence that you can parent your child through anxiety.
About the Author
Denise Warner is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with over 20 years of clinical experience treating adults, adolescents, and children. Denise is skilled in treating many clinical issues including Depression, Anxiety, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She has extensive post-graduate training in the Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Anxiety Disorders. Her unique strength is in developing a strong therapeutic relationship to utilize in combination with clinical skills to assist people in reducing emotional distress, managing unhealthy thought and behavioral patterns, and developing and maintaining healthy relationships.Denise is licensed by the State of Florida and is recognized by the National Board for Certified Counselors. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Sciences, and the American Association of Christian Counselors.