Anxiety is one of the biggest mental health challenges that many children face today. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children will experience some kind of clinical-level anxiety by the time they reach adolescence.
At One Place, part of our mission is to strengthen children’s mental health early on—with the hopes of setting them up for a lifetime of healthy development. Through our early education programs, we help support the first five years of a child’s life and their social-emotional development, which serves as a foundation for their long-term success.
While every child will experience anxious thoughts and feelings at one point in their life, the CDC notes that 7.1% of children between the ages of 3–17 have been officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders in children may include:
For younger children, in particular, it can be hard for them to explain and communicate their feelings—and their anxiety may manifest in a number of other ways, including:
1. Deepen your own understanding of child anxiety.
If you have a child who struggles with anxiety, it can be helpful to learn more about their state of mind. Generally, anxiety is a fear of the future. Anxious children are constantly on the lookout for a future threat, resulting in a constant state of vigilance that leads to exhaustion and stress.
Remember that occasional anxiety is expected. Separation anxiety, for example, is a very normal feeling for many young children under the age of 4 or 5. However, if it continues on as a child grows, it can become debilitating and challenging to manage.
The onset of most anxiety disorders occurs at age 11—and there are several factors that contribute to a child’s overall likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder. Although there is certainly a genetic component, studies have also found that environmental factors play a large role. If a child is exposed to stress, conflict at home, poverty, neighborhood violence, or abuse and neglect, anxiety disorders are more likely to manifest.
2. Help your child relax.
If your child is experiencing feelings of anxiety, pay close attention to their behavior. It might be as simple as a stomachache, headache, or even vomiting. Before you try to talk your child through their anxiety, you need to first help them relax.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is deep belly breathing. We recommend this great video from NPR to walk you through the process. Although this video focuses on self-regulation, it also applies to children who are experiencing moments of anxiety.
3. Show your child empathy and understanding.
When your child begins to experience anxiety, your gut reaction might be to remove them from the stressful or triggering situation. But one of the best ways to help your child is not by removing stressors that trigger it—instead, help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function with it.
You can also show your child empathy without enabling their fear. You might say something like, “I know you’re scared to stay with grandma and grandpa for the night. It’s okay to be scared. You can get through this, and we’ll help you.”
Remember to use your tone of voice and your body language to communicate calmness and empathy to your child as they navigate their feelings.
Anxiety is incredibly common in both children and adults—and there are a number of helpful ways to combat it. If your child is suffering from severe anxiety and you’d like to seek the help of a professional therapist, we suggest asking for a recommendation from your family’s pediatrician.
If you’d like to learn more about helping your child navigate anxiety, here are a few books that may be a great resource:
Questions? We’re here to connect you with the right resources so your family can thrive. Click here to learn more about how we support children’s mental health.
Check back next week for a post on exercises you can teach your child to help them reduce their anxious feelings.