Beyond “just shy” or quiet and reserved- the feelings of anxiety showed themselves early on for my daughter, from tantrums at pre-school before it was time to be the weather helper, to shutting down when asked a question by an unfamiliar adult. I knew what we were facing and despite being a therapist, struggled at times with knowing how to help my daughter.
Possible signs of anxiety in younger children
- Lack of focus/concentration (in school and/or home)
- Complaints of headaches, stomach aches, etc.
- Outbursts of anger/irritability
- Differences in eating or sleeping patterns
- Over-worrying or fixating on certain problems/situations
This is just a small example of possibilities and can also be explained by lots of other reasons.
My daughter is now older (and graciously permitted me to write this) and has managed this anxiety very well over the years to where it isn’t as overwhelming. She is able to verbalize how she is feeling which has helped tremendously in coping and managing anxiety.
While her anxiety is currently being managed, I know she might always deal with struggles related to anxiety, especially in certain social situations.
A lot of kids struggle with anxiety! I also know as a parent it can feel overwhelming to know how to help a child deal with anxiety.
Here are a few things that have been helpful in being a support for my daughter.
Validate, validate, validate!
In the earlier years of dealing and managing with big emotions, I would get frustrated and be hard on her when dealing with anxious feelings about new situations. I’d get frustrated and exclaim, “You’re JUST fine, go!” Now I know how important it is to validate, normalize and encourage.
Validation is saying, I hear you, I see you. I get it. I’m here with you. Let’s figure this out together.
Validation and acknowledgment of how one is feeling is one of the most impactful things we can do for our kids!
Know when to gently challenge
We dealt with some confusing situations where we weren’t sure when we should encourage participation or let it go. It can be hard to figure out that balance.
One thing I learned is the importance of not eliminating all sources of anxiety. This can give the message that they can’t handle it or that it is something to be anxious about. While at the same time, not minimizing what they are feeling. Tricky, right?! I know for us, we took each situation individually and figured it out one step at a time.
When it has been appropriate, in fact, we have gently guided her toward things we know challenge her. Then we celebrate when she overcomes a challenge or fear. We also have known when to “fold” so to speak and let her decide when or how she navigates certain situations.
There are a lot of resources out there for handling anxiety. Some things that helped my daughter were reading books about characters who also struggled with anxiety. When she was younger, she’d say, “They have nervous feelings like me!” She also really connected to Mina the elephant on the movie, “Sing!”
Name it to tame it
Focusing on overall emotional development, like identifying feelings is extremely helpful. When we can name how we’re feeling, it takes some of the power out of them. This practice can start at a very early age by identifying how characters in books or shows are feeling as well as helping kids identify their own feelings.
One thing that also helped my daughter was to begin to identify how anxious feelings impact her physically, too. Being able to practice and hone in on the body/mind connection is a useful skill for all ages!
Of course, another useful resource for kids is going to a therapist. I know it can be tricky to determine when your child should go to a therapist. Therapy can offer your kids another perspective, give them some useful tools and coping skills, and provide you with support and resources as well!
If you aren’t sure whether therapy is the right track, ask yourself if the emotions related to possible anxiety are affecting your child’s ability to function at school, home, or other environments. If it is, therapy could be a great option! Your pediatrician or family doctor is also a good resource.
If your child struggles with feelings of anxiety, know it is very common and you (and they) are NOT alone! 1 in 6 kids have or will have a diagnosable mental health illness. Starting mental health conversations early and continually is so important to support overall emotional/social development.