Childhood Anxiety: 7 Things You Need to Know
The first week of school has come and gone. Everyone’s feeling relieved about that, right? Maybe not. Lots of kids feel anxiety about heading back to class, and for many different reasons. We gear up for that first day and then think we’re over the hump, but what if your child’s anxiety sticks around? For some, just getting into their new environment will help them to realize that not all change is bad, but for others it’s just the beginning.
It’s important to realize that some anxiety is normal, and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Anxiety can be a normal and expected response to change and the unknown, and we all get it at some point. What is most important is the frequency with which it occurs and how you and your child cope with it.
What can you to do to help your child, and when should you seek professional advice?
- Teach your child to recognize when they are feeling anxiety: Your child may not have the vocabulary to describe what they are feeling, and haven’t recognized there are a pattern of feelings they experience when they are anxious. This is something you need to teach them, and do so in words and descriptions that are age appropriate. For example, many people feel anxiety in their stomach. You may describe it as butterflies, bubbles, a squeezing feeling, pain, or discomfort. When you see that your child is having anxiety, stop and ask them to close their eyes and describe where in their body they are feeling it. If they need help, start at their head and move to their feet, naming places and providing words that they can relate to. Common places where people feel anxiety are their head, face, throat, chest, stomach, hands and legs.
- Make sure your child knows what they are experiencing is normal: Anxiety is something that everyone experiences in certain situations. Help your child to understand that. Kids feel more secure (and often less anxious) if they know they aren’t alone. Share your own experiences with your kids, and tell them what you do to cope with anxiety. Help them realize that the feeling doesn’t last forever and that they have some control over how it affects them.
- Teach your child coping skills: Once your child can recognize that they are experiencing anxiety, you can teach them skills to manage it. For example, taking a small time out to do some deep breathing is effective for most people of any age. Deep breathing helps to shift our bodies into a state of relaxation, and is something that can be done anywhere. I recommend finding a quiet location, ideally where you can sit or lean against a wall, closing your eyes, visualizing a safe and comforting place, and taking ten slow, even breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Help your child to figure out what this safe place is for them and encourage them to visualize this same place every time they take a breathing time out. Teach your child to concentrate on their breathing by having them place their hand on their stomach and feeling it rise and fall with each breath. There are many other ways of coping with anxiety in the moment; experiment with different techniques to find out what works best for your child.
- Model the behaviour: The number one piece of advice I give parents on just about everything, is that you should practice what you preach. We are all victims of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ from time to time, but truly, your child learns the most from watching you. Kids observe their parents even when we think they aren’t. They listen to everything we say. They take in all that information and assimilate it into their own behaviour. If you are showing your child healthy ways of managing stress and anxiety, they will follow suit.
- Try not to let your worry show: When we are worried about our kids, it’s hard for it not to show. But if you are concerned that your child is experiencing anxiety, letting them know you are worried about it will likely make the situation worse. Don’t assume that your child is abnormally anxious; assume that what they are experiencing is a normal and expected part of growing up and that you have been presented with the opportunity to help them develop skills that will last them a lifetime. The vast majority of kids I see for anxiety are the first-born of the family, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. As parents we are just doing the best we can at the time, and our oldest child is where we learn the ropes. We worry more with our first because we haven’t yet seen that the parenting we provide allows the child to turn out alright. By the time we get to the second, third or beyond, we know what to expect, and we trust that as parents we are doing a good enough job. Do your best, trust your gut, and let your child learn through experience – these are three of the best pieces of parenting advice I can give you.
- Provide the building blocks: The cornerstones of a healthy childhood are good nutrition, restorative sleep and lots of play. Reduce or eliminate added sugar in their diet, ensure they are ‘eating a rainbow’, make sure they are getting adequate sleep (most kids need at least 10 – 12 hours of sleep a night), and spend time daily playing and laughing with your kids.
- When it’s time to get help: While anxiety is normal, sometimes it impacts your child’s daily life to a degree that is negative and disruptive. If this is the case and you have already tried your best to implement the suggestions listed here, then it’s time to get additional help, particularly if any of the following is negatively impacted: eating, sleeping, socialization, or education.
They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and sometimes that is very true. Don’t be ashamed if you need help. It doesn’t make you any less of a parent. In fact, it’s a great lesson to teach your child that it’s ok to ask for help when you need it. As a naturopathic doctor, I am equipped to help you make sense of your child’s anxiety and create a holistic plan to address it, including referral to other healthcare professionals when appropriate. If you feel like you need a hand, or just a second opinion, you can book an appointment online here: www.drlisaghent.com/book.