I am not a psychologist, nor am I a doctor. But I am someone who spent most of my personal and professional working years around children. Foster children, students, children recovering from abuse and trauma, and my own children. It is safe to say that I have been around my fair share of anxious kids. It just so happens that I have my own anxious child. I never thought I would have to brainstorm ways to help an anxious child, but there are some things you just can’t predict. Some days I want to cry right along with my daughter, but there are other days when I rejoice with her because she is overcoming her fears.
Moms, I know it isn’t easy to have a child with anxiety. You watch your child agonize over simple, daily tasks and situations and your heart breaks. Sometimes, your own anxiety sets in. Although you try to quiet your own so you can focus on helping your child’s anxiety, somehow yours creeps in through the cracks.
So, how do you go about helping a child with anxiety?
Here are some tried and true tips that I have gathered over the years. With ample time and application, they have helped my daughter tremendously.
How to help your anxious child:
Express only gentle encouragement during an anxious time.
Imagine you are snorkeling for the first time in the ocean and you have a fear of sharks. You express this fear to your instructor and he tells you to “get over it.”
Does that response help you to trust your instructor? Does it help you cope with your fear?
Or maybe the instructor’s response is “it’s not THAT big of a deal!” But, in your head you KNOW that a shark COULD be a big deal.
These responses don’t aid in recovering from your fear.
What if your instructor gently said, “Take my hand and I will guide you” or “Let’s swim together and I will watch out for you.”
No spouting off statistics, no shaming, just gentle words with a calming effect.
For children, their fears and anxieties are very real. For chronically anxious kids, not only are their anxieties real, but they are recurring and often debilitating.
These are not made up visions that are formed to bother parents, these are real-to-them fears that should be treated respectfully.
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My daughter gets extremely anxious when she hears an ambulance or fire truck siren. It is true anxiety that makes her stop dead in her tracks and beg to go inside if we are outdoors.
She is truly scared.
Her eyes well up with tears and she is genuinely anxious and fearful. Nothing led up to this fear.
We’ve actually taken a ride in a fire truck and been in a parked ambulance, and nothing traumatic happened during those times.
It is just something she has grown to be anxious about.
So, when she hears a siren and begins to get anxious, I don’t tell her to “get over it”, but instead I pull her in close for a hug and let her know that I am going to hold her tight until the sound is gone.
Making her feel guilty about her fear and anxiety would only exacerbate her problem, not help it. Then, not only would she be worrying about the sirens, but also that maybe something is wrong with her for being anxious and that she has now upset me.
Although it can be quite taxing for the parents of an anxious child, we have to remember what it is like for our children to be suffering.
They need help to sort through their emotions and worries, and with the right encouragement, they can overcome this complex problem.
Most kids like to know how things work. Knowing about the brain is no different, if you make it fun.
According to the article, How To Teach Kids About the Brain, we can explain to children that there are “upstairs” and “downstairs characters” in our brains. It’s important to know how these characters live together and function in the brain house.
The article goes on to explain how naming these characters in the brain house can give kids a fun way to explore their own brain functions. “Problem Solving Pete” and “Calming Carl” are just two of the characters that live in our brains and help when we are stressed.
When children can understand better how their brain works, they can actually learn how to help calm it down.
Parents and caregivers also benefit from learning about the brains because when children can’t calm themselves down, it may take an adult to model and help.
The article also refers to Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book The Whole-Brain Child, where the brain house idea was originally formed. There is also a workbook that goes along with the book: The Whole-Brain Child Workbook.
More Books on Helping Children with Anxiety:
The Heal Your Anxiety Workbook by John B. Arden, Ph.D.
Other web resources that have educational information on the brain and anxiety:
Read children’s books about anxiety and fears.
It is so important that kids don’t feel weird or ashamed about having anxiety. Even though their fears may seem irrational to adults, they are very real to them and need to be treated seriously.
Reading books about anxiety and fears will help give anxious kids relief. Even the simple act of reading a fictional story about an anxious character can help an anxious child understand that they are not alone with their issue.
Books for Kids about Anxiety:
Build your child’s confidence and focus on strengths.
Anxious children NEED to feel confident in order to combat their anxiety.
Anxiety comes from a place of insecurity and being unsure about the world around them.
The more we, as parents, can build up our child’s self-esteem, the better they will be able to handle their worries.
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Between the ages of 2 and 4, my daughter’s anxiety festered into something more than just separation anxiety from me. She was afraid and anxious around loud noises, people she didn’t know and trying pretty much anything new.
God forbid I was more than 12 inches away from her.
I’m not exaggerating.
This might seem familiar to most parents of children that are in that age range. However, this was a debilitating anxiety that prevented her from a lot of things that most children love to do.
With very specific praising and encouraging, she began to branch out more at around age 4.
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She began trying new things.
I never pushed.
I actually never even suggested anything new.
She pursued her interests and once she began accomplishing her goals, she was a different child.
We talked through her fears as she climbed (literally) up her mountain of struggles.
“What if I fall?” she would ask
“What if you fall?” I asked back.
“I’ll get hurt.” She replied.
“Okay. What if you get hurt?” I asked back
“I’ll be okay.” She replied.
“Absolutely.” I said.
These calm conversations helped to build her confidence to believe in herself and put the worries aside.
It turns out, she is an incredible climber and can take on almost any tall structure with ease.
This is a strength that we focus on.
We praise it, we celebrate it.
Seeing this kind of triumph and perseverance in a child who was once afraid of her own shadow, brings on such a flood of emotions, I can barely contain them.
When we build confidence in our children and allow them to explore at their own pace, they truly find their strengths.
They can apply that bravery and sense of accomplishment to other areas and overcome the anxiety that has caused so much doubt.
Be aware food and sleep triggers.
If there is anything I have learned about my daughter’s anxiety, it is the way it is magnified when she is tired, hungry, or when she has had certain foods and drinks.
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Dye, as well as artificial sweeteners are neurotoxins that actually disrupt the nervous system and can lead to anxiety.
There is a noticeable behavior change in my daughter when she has had food with dye or artificial sweeteners.
Sugar is another culprit of increasing her anxiety. The Anxiety Free Child website explains in their article, What Sugar and Caffeine Really Do to Your Anxious Child’s Brain, the following:
Compared to adults, children are more vulnerable to the anxiety-provoking effects of sugar, according to research by Dr. William Tamborlane and Dr. Timothy M. Jones from the Yale School of Medicine and described in the Chicago Tribune. Interestingly, sugar increases adrenalin levels in children but not adults. Adrenalin, also called epinephrine, is a stress hormone; you feel more anxious when levels of adrenalin increase.”
Caffeine is another factor when considering anxiety in children. The article goes on to discuss the research behind caffeine and anxiety:
Caffeine interacts with neurotransmitters, too. For example, as Warwick Hospital’s Anthony P. Winston and colleagues explain in an article from 2005, caffeine blocks gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the central nervous system, especially in regions of the brain known as the thalamus, hippocampus, cerebral cortex and cerebellar cortex. GABA is a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation, and blocking of its receptors interferes with your child’s ability to relax – therefore likely increasing anxiety.”
Making sure your child has a restful sleep is vital when trying to combat anxiety.
Disturbing sleep in children can lead to inability to concentrate and poorer performance in school, nervousness and behavior problems. Just think about how cranky children can get when they’re tired and you’ll understand how consuming caffeine at – or within hours of – bedtime can cause your child to become even more anxious. The half-life of caffeine is five hours, which means that half of the caffeine that children ingest is still in their bodies after five hours, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation. Consuming caffeine in the afternoon or evening is likely to interfere with sleep, especially in caffeine-sensitive children. Nighttime sleeplessness and daytime fatigue can both increase anxiety.”
The best thing to do is to cut out all dye, sugar, artificial sweeteners and caffeine and ensure a good night’s rest.
Once the physical causes are taken out of the equation, the behavioral side of anxiety can be worked on more efficiently. If the body is saying and doing one thing, it is very difficult for the mind to follow.
The Heal Your Anxiety Workbook by John B. Arden, Ph.D. has an entire section dedicated to dietary measures in order to prevent anxiety. Although this workbook isn’t specifically for children, it has a wealth of information about anxiety in general. It can definitely be used for anxiety in children.
Final thoughts on help your child with anxiety:
Anxiety can rear its ugly head in any situation, at any time. There may be times when you are just plain frustrated with your child’s anxiety. Trust me, I’ve been right there with you. It’s not easy. With the right amount of encouragement, education confidence building, and food/sleep investigation, the child who suffers from anxiety can blossom into the adventurous, curious and bold child she is meant to be.