How to Help an Anxious Child

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Learning to identify and manage the symptoms of anxiety in children.

One of the most difficult parts of parenting is watching your children struggle with things that and knowing you can’t step in and save them. It’s even more frustrating when the problem is something you may not fully understand, like anxiety.

Although it can be difficult to accept the validity or extent of an issue as intangible as anxiety, the feelings your child is experiencing are real. He or she is genuinely fearful, confused, and in need of your guidance.

Even if you can’t eliminate the source of the anxiety, you can help your child identify and manage its effects by educating yourself on the symptoms, triggers, and therapeutic tools for this condition.

Signs of childhood anxiety

Anxiety can be tricky to recognize because we all experience it to some extent — it’s a normal side effect of trying new things and dealing with the uncertainties of daily life. Children are surrounded by unfamiliar people and situations that may make them uncomfortable at first. How can you tell when your child is feeling nervous or reluctant to a normal degree versus experiencing anxiety?

It might be anxiety if your child shows a recurring pattern of the following symptoms:

  • Complains of headaches or stomach aches with no apparent medical reason.

  • Appears sensitive, cries, or seems restless, worried, or scared a lot.

  • Shakes, sweats, has an increased heart rate, or feels flushed in intimidating situations.

  • Has trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, or experiences nightmares.

  • Refuses to go to school or isolates themselves in social situations.

  • Experiences panic attacks due to an overactive fight or flight response.

If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety, discuss it with their teacher or other caregivers to get a second perspective, then address the concerns with your pediatrician.

Helping children learn to manage their feelings

Unfortunately, you can’t just push a button and relieve your child’s anxiety or transfer that burden onto yourself. However, responding carefully and thoughtfully to your child’s concerns can help them learn to better manage the sensations associated with anxiety.

Telling your child that there is nothing to worry about, though it may be true, isn’t helpful. They don’t want to worry, but anxiety triggers a biological surge of chemicals and mental transitions that put the more logical part of the brain on hold while the automated part takes over. Children may even understand that the reaction is irrational, but that only compounds their fears that something is wrong.

Instead, try to acknowledge how the child is feeling. Ask them to pause and take some deep breaths with you. Encourage them to persevere and praise them for trying.

Learning to recognize and talk about these feelings can also help. Understanding the reasons behind their physical symptoms can dampen the fear of the unknown. From there, help your child brainstorm potential solutions — things they could do in the moment to relieve the stress they feel.

Most importantly, remain calm and be patient. Anxiety can be frustrating to deal with — and you’re not a bad parent for feeling that way — but keeping your composure will help your child feel safe, and that’s essential.

Working with a professional is the best path to long-term success, so don’t hesitate to get your child outside help for managing anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that helps kids and parents learn coping skills to manage worry, fear, and anxiety. It teaches valuable tools that help children develop the confidence to face their fears throughout a lifetime.

Childhood anxiety can be stressful for parents as well as their children. But with the proper understanding and willingness to get professional advice, you can help your child learn to manage these emotions and react to difficult situations in ways that lead to a more peaceful and empowered life.

Lumiere Children's Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to improve the lives of children and their families.