The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that ‘anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.’ Recognizing anxiety in our children early and helping them find ways to manage it can reduce the chances that they will be affected later in life.
Oxford Dictionaries defines anxiety as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Feeling anxious is natural; all children experience worry and unease at different times in their lives. Your child may have a sibling on the way or a big test at school that makes them feel anxious. Some anxiety can be good, motivating us to prepare and stay alert. It is when anxiety happens excessively and starts interfering with our ability to concentrate or enjoy life that it becomes a problem. Young kids usually can’t tell caregivers that they feel stressed out or anxious; in fact, many kids who feel anxious may not know what they are feeling. As parents, it is important that we pick up on the signs our kids are giving us that they are experiencing stress or anxiety in order to help them.
Common Signs of Anxiety in Children
Changes in behavior or disposition are common signs that your child might be feeling anxious or stressed out. Here are some things to watch for:
- Physical discomfort – Complaining of upset stomach or headaches.
- Sleep problems – Waking up more than normal, having night terrors, or sleep walking.
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks.
- Behavioral changes – Acting extra clingy or extra crabby and short tempered. Acting out and causing trouble when they normally do not.
- Regression – A potty trained child may start having accidents again. A child may start needing help with tasks they mastered already, like asking to be fed when they can feed themselves or wanting to drink from a bottle or suck on a pacifier when they have been weaned for some time.
- Development of a nervous habit – Nail biting, teeth grinding, hair twirling.
- Refusal to go certain places, like daycare, school, or afterschool activities.
We may think kids have it easy and wonder what they would feel stressed out by or anxious about. Kids are faced with so many pressures on a daily basis there may be many factors involved.
Possible reasons kids experience stress and anxiety
- Social pressure accounts for a significant amount of anxiety in kids. Kids worry about making friends, fitting in, and conflicts with peers like being bullied or left out.
- Kids who are afraid of making mistakes or who are afraid of not being good at something experience more anxiety around performing well in areas like grades, tests, and after school activities.
- Kids who are overbooked and are constantly on the go tend to be more anxious. Some kids need more time to recharge than others and need to have less on their plate to have that time to relax.
- Kids pick up on stress around them. If there is turmoil at home, at school, or even on the news they may start to feel stressed out or anxious.
- Last but not least, major changes in their life can bring on feelings of stress and anxiety. For example the birth of a new sibling, moving, or changes in the family-like divorce or the death of a family member all contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety.
As parents we can help our kids with a few simple steps.
- Be Patient. Remember, when kids act out they are usually trying to alleviate negative feelings so try to get to the bottom of the behavior by figuring out what might be going on that is making them feel stressed.
- Without judgement, observe emotions you notice in your kids ‘it seems you are still sad about what happened earlier, is that true?’ Help give your kids the words they can use to describe their emotions like ‘mad, angry, sad, tired, hurt, frustrated, scared,’ so they can articulate their emotions in the future.
- Validate their feelings. Let your child know it is ok to feel the way they do. ‘I understand why that child taking your toy made you mad.’ This helps children feel heard and understood, making them feel comfortable coming to talk to you in the future. It does not mean you condone bad behavior but acknowledge their emotions make sense.
- Help your child feel more in control by looking for ways to ease feelings of stress and anxiety. Teach a variety of coping strategies like burning off negative energy through exercise, writing in a journal, or practicing deep breathing – read how to teach your child deep breathing here. Make sure you are modeling positive coping techniques yourself, remember our kids are always watching.
- When there are new transitions, like a new sibling coming or the start of school, try to limit how many changes your child experiences. Avoid situations you know could be stressful for your child.
- Cut back on your child’s commitments so he or she has the time and energy to focus on managing the stress and anxiety. Make sure your child is interested in or excited about the activities he or she is enrolled in to reduce burn out. Find ways to prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed with too many responsibilities.
- Help raise resilient kids who can handle the difficulties of life, read more about teaching kids to be resilient here.
How do you help your child cope with stress and anxiety?
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