Is your child always worrying? Do they seem overly nervous about school, friends, or their own image? Are they irritable? Emotional? Unable to concentrate or sometimes appear hyper-focused? Have trouble sleeping? These are all common symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety in kids manifests itself in numerous ways, and it looks different for everyone. After a parent or guardian recognizes the signs, the next step is to communicate understanding and be supportive and willing to help the child work through it.
To normalize anxiety, have an honest conversation with your child about what they’re experiencing. Provide validation for what they’re feeling by saying, “That sounds difficult,” or “That must be really frustrating.” It’s also important to talk to them about how anxiety feels in their body. Does their heart race? Jaw clench? Fists ball up? Face get red? By noticing the physical symptoms of anxiety, kids can gain insight into their emotional experience.
Continue to explore your child’s specific experience of anxiety by asking them when they first notice it. Do certain events, tasks, or people trigger their anxiety? What are they thinking when this happens; what do they do? What do the people around them do that help or hurt the situation? Again, this builds your child’s awareness of the anxiety and can help you both understand it better. Be open to considering how you as a parent contribute to your child’s feelings of anxiousness through your own reactions.
Once you and your child become more aware of the factors that contribute to their anxiety, you can help your child brainstorm ways to work through it. For a child who becomes very emotionally dysregulated by anxiety, create a “Calm Zone” filled with activities or toys that will help him or her re-regulate. For a child who struggles with unpredictability, establish consistent routines, especially for the most difficult parts of the day. For children who have a hard time being in unfamiliar social situations, instead of forcing them into actions that create feelings of distress, try to help them with baby steps to help them gradually feel more comfortable. Also remember to provide plenty of encouragement along the way for any small ways they try to help themselves feel better.
Of course, the techniques you use to ease your child’s anxiety may work once, sometimes, or never. That’s why it’s important to continuously check in with your child about how things are going. Has anything changed? Have there been moments when they’ve been successful in minimizing their anxiety? What do they need from you? Try your best to remain open, calm, and patient when discussing your child’s anxiety. This will help them feel cared for and supported. A child who feels heard and understood is more likely to have confidence in their own abilities to try new skills.
It may take time to find what works best for your child. And that’s okay – this is a process. But if it becomes too difficult to manage or you feel like your child (or you!) could use more support, reach out to a mental health professional to talk about individual or family therapy.