Want to Understand and Help Relieve Your Child’s Anxiety?

If you have a child, you’ve likely seen some moments, or even constant occurrences, of anxiety. And it may be causing you to feel anxious, as well, when your child is trying to control the situation, asking questions all the time, withdrawing, arguing, and feeling generally unsettled.
Here are some helpful ways to understand and help relieve your child’s anxiety:
1. What is anxiety?  It’s fear where there’s no present threat.  It comes from the brain’s threat alarm, the amygdala, which often can’t tell when the threat is real or not.  It’s not from children being oppositional; they are just trying to lower their own anxiety. It’s all driven by the brain, and it’s not willful or even conscious on their part.  The brain is saying, “See me!” to the parents or parental figures.  If the child is seen by the parents, the brain registers that the child is safe. If the child is not seen by the parents, the brain registers a threat to survival.
2. What are some of the causes of anxiety in children? The real cause is, as we’ve said, an overactive brain, but some of the events that can make it worse are past trauma, such as parents who abuse or neglect their children (often as a result of their own trauma), family change, such as separation, divorce, incarceration, moving to a new home/community, learning disabilities including ADHD, developmental delay, autism, attachment disorder (often a result of parents’ difficulty in attaching during the child’s infancy), drug use on the part of the parents, and/or a genetic predisposition to anxiety.
3. How does anxiety show up in small children, middle-schoolers, and teens?
In small children, a deep desire to control the situation is a normal aspect of development, but when it’s extreme, we can suspect anxiety. Little ones, who are establishing their sense of self for the first time, feel a deep need to make all the decisions.This is why we see the “terrible twos” and “threenagers” coming into the conversation often. In the case of an anxious little one, we also see clinginess that’s out of the range of typical.  Some parents misinterpret this as “just difficult”, but it’s truly only to lower their own anxiety, not disrespect or crankiness, as it’s often misinterpreted. Young children will also ask “what’s next?” a 1,000 times a day, which helps them feel less vulnerable. Often they talk incessantly, which is normal for some and anxiety for others. The constant talk is actually an avoidance of the uncomfortable feelings of fear. “If I keep talking, I can stave off that fear and I won’t have to feel it so strongly,” is the child’s inner message. Again, this is all unconscious on the child’s part.
Middle schoolers show their anxiety by being very worried about what others think, which is also normal at this stage, but can become extreme. If a child is paralyzed by not having a certain article of clothing, or showing an extreme need to have the same electronics capability as others, it’s time to wonder if it might be anxiety. Another cause of anxiety at this age is the comments on social media made by others about a pre-teen or even about their friends.  Social media is a Pandora’s box of potential harm, as communication  can occur without parental knowledge or guidance. This is a huge call for parents to be vigilant about what’s happening on their children’s phones and tablets.  The anxiety of both “perpetrators” and “victims” is rampant in today’s world. Social media in the hands of those who don’t possess impulse control can create great harm.
Teens are anxious for some of the same reasons as pre-teens, but they have more worldly awareness, which can increase their anxiety. They learn about political activity, world events, and the horrific possibilities for harm to our fellow humans. They may also have a more internal anxiety because of uncertainty about their personal status among peers, love interests, their sexual identity, grades, performing in front of others, post-high school education, future careers, and myriad other issues that come up for teens. So if they appear moody, it’s truly understandable.
4. What are the effects of anxiety on a child?  In addition to the ones we already discussed (controlling behavior, need to know what’s next, and incessant talking) moodiness, isolation, depression, acting out, and rage can all be signs of deep anxiety. These can occur in children of all ages, so don’t assume little ones don’t have strong reactions to anxiety. In older children, you might see them snapping at parents at the slightest request.  They may spend all their time in their room on their electronic devices.  They may act as if they don’t care about anything at all. They may do things, such as drive dangerously or use substances to express their deep feelings. They may fly into a rage whenever their deeply held beliefs are questioned. Again, this is not disrespect, but just the organism child trying to survive in an immature way, because they are immature.

5. What can parents do to help their children become less anxious? The first thing is to help them feel seen, feel felt. This can calm the threat alarm or amygdala, so that the child can function with less anxiety; in other words, think straight and be a contributing member of the family and community.  So we’re not about “getting a child to do what’s right.” We’re freeing the child to do what he or she knows is needed, by lowering anxiety. One way to see the child is to write an “I See You Letter.”  This bypasses the conversational aspect, as so many kids become allergic to their parents’ voices. When something is in writing, it weighs more, as we’ve all experienced. Saying “I see you,” can help parents focus on the issues that are alive for the child right now, and also increase their compassion for the child. It’s so important to give kids space to be immature, and the “I See You Letter” can simply acknowledge the child’s situation and help the amygdala calm down.  Parents don’t even have to solve problems, interestingly.  They can reflect the child’s situation, and then ask for a conversation about solving the problems that includes the child.  We find that self-efficacy, or control over one’s destiny, is the perfect antidote to anxiety.

Other ways to help the child are self-regulation techniques. Often just being told that when you have that yucky feeling, it’s just your brain going overboard is really helpful for the child.  They don’t have to “be” anxiety. They can just say, “Oh, that was my brain overdoing the worry again.” It really helps them to put the source of the problem on their brain instead of their being.  Self-regulation can also be through yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, and square breathing (inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4).  When parents do this with their children, they are “co-regulating” – let’s face it, parents often need to lower their own anxiety, too.

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