Anxiety in Children
Adults often wonder, “what could a child have to be anxious about?”
We usually think of stress and anxiety in grown-up terms. What may come to mind for an adult are things like bills, deadlines at work, health problems…
Kids may not have these kinds of stressors to consider. But, they do experience a lot of stress in early childhood. It just looks different than what grownups consider stressful.
That’s because everything is new for children. They are always navigating uncharted territory without a compass to guide the way.
Things That May Cause Anxiety
Preschoolers are introduced to new stressors all the time. Everything is brand new.
● New teachers
● New environments
● New rules and routines
● New kids to play with
● New information and learning
Adult stressors that lead to anxiety may seem heavier. But, adults also have many coping strategies. Over time we have developed a toolkit of skills that allow us to take on stress, manage it, and bounce back.
Children rarely have these coping strategies in place. When faced with stress they aren’t sure how to manage it. This can cause them to feel alone. They worry that stress and anxiety only impact them.
What is the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety?
Let’s define the difference between stress and anxiety. Simply put, stress is external and anxiety is internal.
Both stress and anxiety are normal and we all experience them. It is more common to experience stress in our everyday lives. But, anxiety is something many children and adults will encounter as well. How we help kids manage stress and anxiety early on impacts their long-term mental health.
Stress and anxiety are closely related. Stress triggers anxiety symptoms.
Stress is a response to something that has happened outside of ourselves. For example, a classmate takes a toy from your child or your preschooler trips and skins their knee.
Anxiety, on the other hand, continues after the initial cause. It usually shows up as worry, fear, or nervousness. When a child shows fear towards certain action or experience anxiety may be at play.
Symptoms or Signs of Anxiety in Kids
It is important to know what to look for. There are many different signs and symptoms of anxiety. There is no one-size-fits-all diagnosis. It is important to tune in to your child and be aware of any changes you may observe.
Changes in behavior are a common indicator of anxiety in preschoolers. It can show up in many ways, but often in these areas:
These changes are not always caused by anxiety, but it is good to pay attention if your child displays them. Paying attention to changes will help you coach your child to handle stress early on.
Anxiety may result in new sleep habits. Your child may suddenly have a harder time with bedtime or may wake up more often in the middle of the night. Noticing and tracking these sleep changes can be helpful in identifying anxiety.
Sometimes a child’s appetite will change. They may eat less, may not eat properly, or they might even complain of physical symptoms. These can present as a tummy ache or headache. Be sure to talk about these changes with your pediatrician to find the root of the issue.
Attitude shifts can also be a sign of anxiety. When children feel overwhelmed they may act out, show frustration, or lose patience.
You may also notice new tendencies to shy away from activities. Often when a child feels overwhelmed you may observe that they begin to avoid certain tasks.
As children develop their stress management strategies they don’t plan long term. Avoiding things is short-sighted but effective. It lets them reduce or eliminate the stress at the moment.
Adults know that avoiding something won’t make it disappear forever. But, kids find that this allows them to reduce their stress and take control. If we do not teach our children how to manage anxiety, they will rely on unhealthy coping strategies.
Solutions for Helping Anxiety
The best thing we can do to help children manage anxiety is to normalize it!
If no one is talking to them about it, chances are kids won’t realize that they aren’t alone with their emotions! They don’t know that other children and adults may have similar challenges.
The more we process out loud and discuss stress and anxiety productively, the more at ease our kids will feel too! This doesn’t mean you should share your own personal concerns or fears. It does mean that you should ask your child how they are feeling and validate these emotions.
Talk about stress and remind your child that it is a normal part of life. A life without stress would be boring. It is necessary to learn and grow to make us stronger. We all need a healthy amount of stress for a full life! Managing stress and anxiety is a balance for us all. The more stress we have, the more coping options we will need to have handy. If we have more stress without solutions, we can become helpless. This is when anxiety kicks in.
Coaching and Role Play
In this article by Today’s Parent, they discuss how important it is to help kids with anxiety. It is important that we as adults talk to our kids about stress and help them through it.
Consider yourself a stress management coach! Your goal is to give your child opportunities to learn in a safe environment. You will set realistic goals, and help them develop confidence in a new skill or experience.
For example, your child may be anxious to meet new friends or play at the playground. To help them manage this anxiety, you might introduce them to the environment. Then you can explain each step.
Together, observe out loud what other people are doing. Help your child notice how they interact. This will let your child feel more at ease. Over time you may guide them to take small steps toward playing at the playground.
Children want to be able to predict and know expectations. The more familiar they are with a scenario, the more prepared they will feel to take part.
You might also role-play at home in a low-risk environment. Talk to them about what situations may arise and practice what your child can say or do. This is an excellent way to help your child feel less anxious and more in control without avoiding new environments or experiences.
Create an Anxiety Toolkit
Everyone copes with stress and anxiety in different ways. Teaching your child many different strategies can be both fun and useful.
Your preschooler may not connect with every strategy. The hope is that they will find a handful of tools they enjoy. Learning to find the tools that will help them manage their stress is key. This will let them know what to do so they can bounce back when confronted with anxiety.
Anxiety Toolkit Ideas
Yoga is a great way to combine movement, breath, and mindfulness. When done in a safe, welcoming space, it lets children be in the moment. Try making up funny yoga poses with your child. Or you can pretend to be animals. There are tons of animal yoga poses like frog pose! Lion’s breath is another fun way to be silly while learning breathing exercises at the same time!
You may even introduce your child to guided meditations, yoga, or sleep stories. These will help them relax their mind while coaching them to see that they have power over their thoughts.
Daily dance parties are a great way to shake those worries away! Put on some upbeat music, move the furniture out of the way, and have a dance party in your living room!
Your child may also enjoy creating music with simple instruments at home. This can be empowering and will help to build up their confidence.
In addition, playing your child’s favorite calming music can help to soothe them when upset.
Connect with Nature
According to the Child Mind Institute, time outside can help reduce stress in kids. Connecting with nature allows children to develop their imagination, confidence, and creativity.
Imagination can especially be helpful in fighting anxiety. It lets children consider all outcomes in play and in life.
Children love working with their hands. They can develop pride and ownership in creating something of their very own. Art is a good way for kids to express what they are feeling. Prompt your child to share more by asking questions and telling them what their art makes you wonder. This can help them process or share anxious thoughts.
These tools and strategies are a good way to support your child as they learn to confront, process, and manage anxiety. However, it is also important to seek professional guidance if your child’s anxiety continues and does not improve.
It is important to be mindful that conflict or changes at home like a change in the family dynamics can cause more severe anxiety in children ages 3-5. If changes of this sort are happening in your family life, be sure to invite your child’s teachers, counselors, and healthcare professionals so that you can offer support on all fronts.
Be sure to talk to your child’s pediatrician regularly so that they can provide their expert guidance. They may be able to refer you to a professional who is trained to help young children with anxiety. Counseling or other forms of therapy may be an option depending on your child’s needs.
While young children experience stress differently than adults, it is important to arm them with the tools and validation they need to grow into healthy, happy, well-balanced young people. Looking out for key signs of anxiety, normalizing stress, offering healthy coping strategies, and seeking support from your community will help you and your child manage anxiety.