Written by: Kathryn Meiners, MSW, LCSW
Does your child have difficulty sleeping? Do they have unexplained headaches or stomachaches? Does your child become uncharacteristically angry or irritable? Do they feel restless or worry often? If so, they may be experiencing anxiety. The number of children experiencing anxiety has steadily risen since 2003 and more children are experiencing anxiety at a younger age. “7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety” (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). The likelihood of a child experiencing anxiety increases with age. A teenager who is 16 years old has a greater chance for experiencing anxiety than a 5 year old child.
When to seek help?
It is common to worry about upcoming events and it may be difficult to know what an average level of worry is. Anxiety is excessive worry which causes physical, emotional, or mental distress. It may manifest itself as a perfectionism in a child or extreme concern regarding grades. If your child has difficulty sleeping, isolates, has unexplained physical symptoms, or is unwilling or unable to engage in daily activities, consider seeking professional help.
Where do I go?
Seeking professional help can begin at your doctor’s office. Your doctor may help you identify if your child has age appropriate concerns or if it has developed into anxiety and needs additional help. A therapist will assess your child’s level and type of anxiety, help your child to reduce their anxiety, and provide parenting techniques to parents. Many doctors work with a therapist in the area who they trust and can refer you to. Some offices now have therapists within the doctor’s offices who can assist. Ask questions regarding the type of therapy the therapist does. Seek after a therapist who uses evidence-based practices, including cognitive behavioral therapy and play therapy. An additional option is talking with your child’s school. Their school may have a social worker or psychologist on staff who is available to talk with your child and provide a safe place for your child to talk while at school. Some schools contract with trained professionals to provide therapy while your child is at school. The school personnel may also be able to make recommendations to trained professionals in the area.
How do I help?
When a child has anxiety, it impacts the entire family. Parents may have strong concerns about how to help their child but lack the knowledge or resources. While a trained professional may assist with specific strategies, a starting point for helping your child reduce their anxiety is to:
1. Listen to your child about their concerns and provide a safe environment for them.
2. Find a positive distraction for them – this can be their favorite music, reading a book, or playing a game together.
3. Avoid pushing a child into a situation of which they are fearful. You can work together with your therapist to help the child overcome their fears and worries.
4. Help your child find the positive and happy part of their day.
5. Engage your child in regular physical activity.
6. Encourage and assist them in healthy eating habits.
7. Create a calm environment and maintain routines for bedtime.
Is there hope?
Yes. With time, patience, resources, and practice of principles, your child can overcome their anxiety. Having loving individuals and trained professionals in your child’s life will support them through this challenge and allow them to overcome their anxiety.
Resources for additional information:
National Institute for Mental Health https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/index.html