Adults aren’t the only ones who can suffer from anxiety—kids of all ages can also have anxiety disorders.
According to Gregory Robinson, Ph.D., from Carilion Children’s Child Development Department, there has been a 17-percent increase in anxiety disorders in children in just the last 10 years, with around 30 percent of children having experienced anxiety.
As parents, we want our kids to be happy and healthy. Sometimes it can be hard to think about things like anxiety from their perspective, but it’s up to us to help them as soon as we see issues arising.
“Childhood anxiety can be mild, moderate or severe,” he says. “It can easily be mistaken for other conditions, so parents should be aware and on the lookout for signs and symptoms so they can alert the child’s pediatrician.”
It might be time to talk to your pediatrician if your child:
- Is frequently scared, nervous or worried
- Often has headaches or stomachaches
- Doesn’t want to leave you
- Doesn’t want to go to school
- Has trouble sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Suddenly starts doing worse in school
- Withdraws from friends or previously enjoyed activities
- Is restless or has trouble paying attention
- Feels or acts out of control
Your pediatrician can check for physical issues that could be the cause of the changes. They may also suggest finding a counselor to talk to your child and see what could be happening.
"Kids with untreated anxiety disorders are more likely to experience depression, academic problems and substance abuse."
In the meantime, what can you do to help your child when he or she is experiencing anxiety or anxious thoughts? These tips and tricks may help:
- First, remember that kids, even as teenagers, do not have the cognitive ability that adults do—they often need help recognizing and processing their emotions. Don’t expect them to know what they’re feeling, but instead talk to them and ask them questions so you can identify their emotions together. Younger kids can even draw how they’re feeling.
- Reassurance is a big thing for kids. Simply letting them know that it’s OK to feel the way they feel can help. Do we wish they didn’t feel so scared or worried? Sure. But telling them not to be scared or worried won’t do anything to teach them how to handle those emotions.
- Help your child recognize how their feelings actually feel. What happens in their body when they’re angry, sad or worried? Teaching them to tune in to their body can make them more mindful and aware of when they’re starting to feel anxious so they can use some coping strategies.
- Expecting the worst-case scenario can be at the root of anxiety in children. Talk to them about what it looks like in their mind—if the worst possible thing happened, what would that be? Their answer can help you reassure them and provide a more realistic picture of what’s happening.
- It may sound counterintuitive, but protecting your kids from what scares or worries them actually doesn’t help in the long run. To realize that situations aren’t as bad as they’re imagining, kids need to experience the situation—safely. Start small and let them get comfortable before working up to more intense or involved situations.
- Teachers see your kids as much, if not more, than you do. Get teachers involved by providing as much information as possible about what your child is experiencing. By working as a team, you can all watch for situations that trigger anxiety and recognize ways to help your child cope.
- Knowing what your kids are being exposed to online can provide insight into anxiety. For older kids, monitor their cell phones and social media use; for all ages, make sure you know what they’re watching online.
You can also help your kids with many of the coping techniques from Tips and Tools for Managing Anxiety.
One big thing to remember is that, just like in adults, it can be difficult for kids to think rationally in the midst of anxiety. You’ll likely make a bigger impact by having these conversations at a time when your child isn’t experiencing anxiety.
“Above all, the key is to make sure your child gets help for their anxiety,” said Dr. Robinson. “Kids with untreated anxiety disorders are more likely to experience depression, academic problems and substance abuse.”
If your child is showing signs of anxiety, make an appointment with their pediatrician to talk about what’s going on and what could help.