The Anxious Child
Understanding your child's anxiety is essential to alleviating it.
Posted Nov 16, 2020
Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere — English Proverb
Anxiety is never easy, but add-on the global health crisis, online schooling all-day, and remaining pressure to get “good grades” as the semester closes, and today’s students are exceedingly worried. Just yesterday, I met with Rose, age 12, who said, “I’m upset by everyone arguing over politics and yelling about what’s happening in the world.” The truth is that children pick up on whatever the adults around them are communicating – verbally, or non-verbally, and if they don’t have ways to calm and center themselves, they are likely to become worried, anxious or nervous.
APA defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (2020). Anxiety is certainly a feeling, and for some, it is debilitating, where they cannot function in everyday life. Understanding your child’s experience of anxiety (worry, tension, nervousness, apprehension) whether it is situation specific (for example, test anxiety) or concerning a particular scenario (for example, germs, political unrest, climate) or more generalized, is important in helping him or her.
There is certainly no magic wand when it comes to anxiety, however, understanding some of the root causes of the problem can help immensely. For example, I worked with Billy, age 7, who became incredibly nervous around anyone with a tattoo. Since he lived in New York City, Billy couldn’t necessarily avoid people with tattoos – so I helped him correct his misperception (people with tattoos are all scary) and begin to see (and eventually feel) things differently. Of course, this sounds simple, but it wasn’t easy and took a lot of practice (and exposure to non-scary tattooed people) to help Billy feel more in-control as well as safe again.
Scientific research suggests that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) has the highest success rate for helping children reframe their thinking (correct misperceptions) and ultimately experience less anxiety and stress. CBT and medicine are the two most common treatments. What I described above can be considered akin to CBT since I helped Billy change his thinking (cognitive), which resulted in a different experience (behavior) although it was more mentoring and coaching – less therapizing.
Another common experience of worried children is spiraling into a “worry storm,” with what-if scenarios such as: What if we drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and we have an earthquake? What if we get on the plane, and it needs to make an emergency landing? What if the power goes out, and they cannot turn it back on again? Of course, these are good questions, but they are all future-focused. Helping your son or daughter come back to the present moment where things are oftentimes alright is going to help them lower the volume on their anxiety.
Specifically, mindfulness strategies have been shown to be effective in helping children calm their bodies and return to present moment awareness such as: breathing exercises (four-square breathing, and five-finger breaths from my book, The Emotionally Healthy Child), calming audios (see my previous post, "5 Mindfulness Apps"), and grounding activities (count 1 to 10 in English, then Spanish) to help a child learn to slow down and calm. Of course, there are more, but this is a beginning.
One More Thing
Anxiety is a sophisticated subject, and if at any point you feel concerned about your anxious child, I recommend seeking professional and/or medical guidance to assist you. There are plenty of good people on the planet (Zoom or in-person) who are highly skilled and able to help you and your children around reducing anxiety – or better yet, making anxiety your child’s friend. Because when you befriend something versus making it your enemy, you can learn to work with it, transform it, and move beyond the experience to something better. Of course, that doesn’t mean anxiety disappears, but it becomes a stepping stone versus a stumbling block.
APA (2020). APA Website
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Healy, M (2012). Growing Happy Kids. Deerfield, FL: HCI Books.
Healy, M (2018). The Emotionally Healthy Child. Novato, CA: New World Library.