Anxiety: We’ve all experienced it and witnessed it, and it ain’t pretty.
As adults, we may have learned tools and methods to control our anxiety. But when anxiety manifests itself in children without the language or the means by which to identify their inner struggle, anxiety can not only be difficult to diagnose, but even more challenging to effectively address.
Common Signs of Anxiety in Children
Anxiety is often accompanied by a wide variety of external factors, stimuli and expression, ranging from withdrawal, agitation, restlessness, inattention and poor focus. Anxiety may also manifests in somatic symptoms of stress, such as stomachaches, headaches or restlessness.
One of the most common reactions to anxiety is the avoidance of regular activities: this is usually accompanied by an emotional outburst such as tantrums and crying. Your child may suddenly refuse to go to school and have massive meltdowns before school about how their clothing, hair, shoes or socks looks or feels. Or the meltdowns may come after school about homework. Parents often witness the meltdown triggered by transitions, such as the transitions between school and other sports and activities. Meltdowns may also accompany performance-related anxiety for children who hold themselves to extremely high standards for homework, sports, school and artistic endeavors.
Not only is anxiety present throughout the day, but children with anxiety often have a difficult time relaxing and settling down for bed, compounding the stress factor the next morning when they awake. When children live with anxiety, their bodies are under a constant deluge of stress hormones, which creates a snowball effect upon their health and well-being, causing even more anxiety. Poor sleep, inability to relax, shortened breath and fear become the norm. It’s no wonder these children lack the ability to be calm and present: their bodies are overworked and overstressed.
Anxiety is Stress
Clinically speaking, anxiety is classified as a stress related mental health disorder.
When the body experiences stress, it does not differentiate between non-fatal modern day stressors and the ancient stressors we faced when living in caves and fighting for our lives.
The body reacts in the same way, and fight-or-flight takes over the nervous system and immediately triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline, preparing us to whatever we are doing and run or fight for our lives.
As adults, we may react verbally, by yelling and cursing at other drivers when in the throes of road rage, for example. As negative as this reaction is, it is still a reaction and one under our control, one which allows our nervous system to release some tension.
Children often react by crying and having a tantrum, or suddenly refusing to do those things that we adults perceive of as normal, everyday functions. These reactions which may come as a result of a non-threatening phrase for an adult – “Let’s get dressed for soccer practice, honey,” – all of the sudden trigger fear and anxiety in the child’s body. Their young body reacts to fear and anxiety with a flood of cortisol and adrenaline, the same hormones that our ancestor’s bodies released when faced with a sudden attack by a saber toothed tiger. Without the tools to understand why they are feeling anxiety and fear, or even the language to be able to identify these feelings, children are faced with the effects of the feelings, oftentimes too frightening to process. And the result is physical behavior that can be extreme and unexplainable. Other common symptoms of anxiety in children include selective mutism and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Under such conditions, it’s not difficult to see why children with anxiety act out in ways that may baffle the adults around them. Frequently, these behaviors become more persistent, intense and frustrating over time., Oftentimes, anxiety can be misdiagnosed as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder because it is usually present in conjunction with other disorders.
How to Manage Anxiety
As educators and therapists, our staff at Specialized Therapy Services and The OAS Center is here to help you and your family manage your child’s anxiety with a blend of evidence and play based therapeutic techniques. We provide a variety of therapies in our clinic and charter school settings including: Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Individual Counseling, Psychological Services, and more. For more information find us at https://www.theoascenter.com
Childhood anxiety often goes away, but the process is slow and requires patience. A more accurate term might be that your child will learn how to handle their anxiety to such a degree that the anxiety will seem as if it is no longer present. And over time, this is what happens. Anxiety becomes less and less of an issue, because your child is given the tools to manage and control their own behavior. Once in control of their behavior, this out-of-control stressor no longer is out-of-control, and the effects of the stressor lesson and may even entirely go away.
The key to managing stress and anxiety in children is learning to recognize when the anxiety strikes and not punishing your child when they are acting out: remember, this is a child who does not have the full means of controlling their body and emotions. This child needs to have a patient and calm person on the other end of their outburst. If you mirror your child’s anxiety with your own emotional outburst, the process becomes more complicated and difficult to diffuse.
It’s important to recognize that anxiety is rooted in fear. Fear is not diminished by anger, frustration or discipline. Stay calm when your child experiences anxiety and pay attention to your child’s feelings over their actions. Your goal is not to eliminate the anxiety, but to help your child learn to manage it: in doing so, you empower your child to learn to help themselves.
Instead of keeping your child’s life as anxiety-and-stress-free as possible, give them positive tools before common stressors, such as, “Take three deep breaths.” This simple act forces the child to focus on something other than the root of their anxiety. Distraction is a powerful tool. In being distracted, you’re now asking the child to breathe deeply and oxygenate their system, to calm and slow down. You are helping diminish the stress and fear trigger that flooded their system with cortisol and adrenaline. Three deep breaths may seem like nothing at all, but it is rooted in science and is a powerful technique to introduce body-based mindful awareness tools to your child.
If your child is old enough to count, follow the three deep breaths with an instruction to increase the length of their exhale in comparison with their inhale. A recent article in Psychology Today notes how a longer exhale helps decrease stress by stimulating the Vagus nerve and combat fight-or-fight stress response. Something as simple as, ““Let’s count to three as we inhale. And now let’s count to five as we exhale” has powerful, long-lasting effects on the nervous system, especially if you can maintain this breath for one and up to two minutes at a time.
Don’t modify or skip activities because they cause anxiety. This won’t help your child learn to manage their anxiety or live a normal life: your child will simply transfer their anxiety onto other situations. Instead, plan for transitions. Recognize and praise your child for the small accomplishments that they take. And don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress. Remember to give lots of positive reinforcement.
When you’re faced with an activity that causes anxiety, listen to your child’s fears but don’t empower them. Instead, explain that you will be there with your child every step of the way. Tell them it’s okay to be scared, nervous or worried. Tell them this is normal. Practice with them a coping skill, like our longer exhale breath technique, and then tackle the activity together. Your child may not be able to effectively handle their anxiety right away, but with patience, time and practice, you will both get better at handling anxiety-inducing situations.
If you know you can’t be there with your child when the anxiety-triggering situation presents itself,talk out the situation before it happens and coach them through practice scenarios on how to deal with their anxiety. For example, a child with separation anxiety might need to have a specific adult like a teacher, other parent, or counselor to connect with if mom or dad aren’t around. If your child knows that this particular adult is “safe,” automatically, their anxiety is lessened. It may also be helpful to share your anxiety-reducing tools (such as our Three Deep Breaths) with this adult so that they can practice your child’s anxiety-reducing techniques with them.
Also remember that as a parent and educator, it’s important for YOU to model healthy anxiety coping skills. Our children are master observers. If they see you becoming inexplicably angry or constantly complaining to other adults in your life about how stressed you are, they will interpret your stress and anger within their body as fear of the unknown. That fear then translates to anxiety. Certainly, life can be stressful and we’re not saying that you shouldn’t ever be stressed, fearful, anxious or angry: to live so is not human. But what is human is to live and learn how to manage our anxiety so that we can model these behaviors to our young ones.
Remember that children learn the most by watching. When you react to stress with anxiety, make sure to take time afterwards to explain why you felt these things and how you are dealing with them.
Share your tools on dealing with anxiety with your children. When you take the first step in managing your own anxiety, your children will see and realize that anxiety is normal and that it’s OK to be anxious. That permission alone will lessen their need to demonstrate negative anxiety-coping behaviors. In voicing your feelings and sharing your coping methods, you not only show your children that you are human and that you experience the same things they do, but you will empower your children manage their anxiety and become more mindful citizens of the world.
Think Your Child Might Have an Anxiety Disorder, but not sure? Take this quiz offered by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.