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3 min read

Is my child struggling with anxiety?

Williamsburg Therapy Group, Child on couch hiding under pillow

Is my child struggling with anxiety?

It is common for children to feel worried and anxious from time to time. This can be a normal reaction when facing something new or when they are feeling challenged in some way. Having some worries is developmentally appropriate for children, however it can become a challenge when the fears interfere with daily functioning, such as school or home life. 

 

Signs that a child might be struggling with anxiety: 

Often, if a child is anxious, they might exhibit physical symptoms that otherwise cannot be explained, and they often become more prevalent after a specific life event, transition, or change. Physical examples may include, fidgetiness, irritability, difficulty focusing (these often get mistaken for ADHD!), stomach aches, headaches, nausea, and other physical symptoms. Children also may experience heart palpitations and chest tightness, which can often be scary for them as they (and their parents) may think something is physically wrong.

Anxiety can also manifest itself through repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, or reassurance seeking. 

Some of these are age/developmental level dependent, such as clinginess, difficulty separating/ separation anxiety (usually for younger children 3-7). 

 

How to help children cope:

One of the ways to help children struggling with anxiety is to help them identify why anxiety shows up in their bodies, and what it is trying to communicate. This can start with teaching children about the nervous system as well as the importance of emotions as important signals of how they are feeling. Letting them know that one of the “jobs” of their nervous system is to protect them and keep them safe may remind them that there is nothing wrong with feeling nervous, worried, or scared. 

 Sometimes, it can help to give the feeling a name, such as the “worry voice”, or “worry alarm” to help the child be curious about what the worry is saying, and then choose whether to listen to it (or not!)

Reading books together about emotion identification, and worries in particular, can also help them feel less alone with their anxious thoughts/ feelings. Some examples of such books are:

My Body Sends a Signal: Helping Kids Recognize Emotions and Express Feelings by Natalia Maguire 

Ruby Finds a Worry  by Tom Percival

It can also help to communicate with your child about upcoming experiences that may bring about change, uncertainty, or fear. For example, if your child has an upcoming dental appointment, it can be helpful to walk them through the steps of what will happen first, second, and last. Exploring some of the parts that you anticipate may be difficult for them is also important. You may want to ask, “What are some parts that might be trickiest? How do you think you will feel when that happens?” Finding a way to give your child small but meaningful choices (such as letting them bring a comfort toy)  can also help provide them with a  sense of agency. It is always beneficial to remind your child of some things that are certain – such as that they will not be alone in the experience and a trusted adult will be with them for support and comfort. 

Sometimes, concrete strategies can also be useful. This can involve mindfulness strategies such as breathing exercises, grounding exercises, as well as self-talk. It is important to practice these strategies together, in neutral moments, so that they can be applied when the worries become stronger. Individual therapy can also be helpful to learn and implement these strategies. 

 

Listen to your child and try to understand what he or she is feeling. 

Through encouraging communication about emotions, your child will not feel alone with their feelings. It can be helpful to ask them questions about when the worry comes up, and explore some ideas of what they can do to help their body feel safe. 

When talking with a child who experiences anxiety, try to be supportive without minimizing the problem or trying to solve it for them. More often than not, the content of the fears can be irrational and using logic may “feed the worry” instead. 

One way to help the child feel seen is to reflect that you believe that they are scared and that their feeling is real. While you may not see the content of the worry as equally frightening, it is important for the child to know that their underlying feeling is understood. It can also be nice to reflect on a similar experience where you felt worried, and maybe share how you cope with such feelings. This can help kids know that worries are a universal experience. 

 

Most children experience anxiety at various points

If your child is experiencing anxiety, it's important to know that it is normal and that there are things you can do to help them cope. You can also look for signs of anxiety in your child so that you can address it before it becomes a problem.

Therapy can be a helpful space to address these feelings, especially if the anxiety is interfering with the ability to participate in school and daily routines. Depending on the age and developmental level, different therapy modalities can be used to help the child process emotions. It is also important to note that one of the most important parts of child therapy is family engagement. Children are impacted significantly by their caregivers and any changes that the family may make can have a great impact on the child. Parent consultations and check-ins can help parents learn strategies to connect with their children through emotions, learn to model healthy coping behaviors, and learn ways to respond to their child’s anxiety. 

 


 

MEET THE AUTHOR

Williamsburg Therapy Group Dr. Irina Gorelik

Irina Gorelik, Psy.D.

Child & Adult Psychologist

READ THEIR BIO

 

 

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