We think of childhood as a carefree time of play and fun, but in reality, anxiety can manifest in children at nearly any age. We’re taking a look at some of the causes and symptoms of childhood anxiety, along with tactics and techniques you can start to use today to help your child stress less.
Causes of Anxiety
Many studies have been done into what causes anxiety in children. Some have looked at genetics, while others look at environmental factors. Children who have experienced trauma are more likely to struggle with anxiety, as are children with a genetic predisposition. In most cases, researchers agree that a combination of factors is likely to explain the underlying cause of anxiety disorders.
No Clue? No Worries!
Unsure if your child is struggling with anxiety? Remember that anxiety, even in young children, is totally normal. Jennifer Wells, a therapist with the Lindner Center of HOPE in Cincinnati says there’s usually no reason to worry.
“I work really hard at normalizing the experience of anxiety,” Wells says. “So many times, we think there’s something wrong, and then we overreact. We have to remind parents that we aren’t just looking to get rid of the anxiety, because that reinforces the belief that anxiety is bad.”
So, when does it become a problem? When the anxiety keeps you or your child from functioning in your daily routine, there may be an issue.
You know your child better than anyone, so you’re likely to be the first person to feel something may be off. Michael Lesko, youth team lead at Beckett Springs Hospital in West Chester, says that parents can watch for signals that their child is developmentally moving backwards.
“Some of that anxiety may look like regressive traits,” Lesko says. “There could be issues with toilet training, for example. Maybe they’re starting to have accidents again. It’s important to remember that these regressions are not a conscious process.”
Some of the other warning signs of anxiety can include:
- Trouble with separation (going to school, visiting friends, etc.)
- Frequent tantrums or meltdowns
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Anger, stubbornness or obstinacy
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
There are many ways parents can be proactive in helping their children manage symptoms of anxiety. The following tactics could be the key to giving your child vital coping skills.
Children often lack the ability or the vocabulary to explain to you what’s wrong. Talk to them on their level, using words they understand. Lesko says it’s also important that you assure them of your support.
“It’s imperative that you validate their feelings,” he says. “If they believe there’s a monster under the bed, that’s their reality. Validate their experiences rather than brushing them off. Pay attention to their behavior, because the behavior is there, even when they don’t necessarily have the words.”
With children, it’s very important to practice what you preach. You can’t expect them to feel calm and worry-free when you’re throwing off your own anxious vibes. Deal with your own stressors and worries in a healthy way, so you can model effective coping techniques for them.
Gently exposing your child to their anxiety triggers can help them process their feelings in a meaningful way. Wells says encouraging and rewarding children for facing their fears can be effective.
“Let’s say they’re really nervous about going to a birthday party. Recognize their worry and encourage them by showing you believe they’re strong enough to do this,” Wells says. “You aren’t going to eliminate the anxiety, but you can eliminate potential avoidance and isolation.”
If you do feel that your child’s anxiety if impacting their ability to function on a daily basis, it’s time to seek help. Consider your pediatrician your first line of defense. Additionally, for school-age children, get to know their school counselor or social worker, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It can be frightening and painful to watch your child deal with the difficulties of anxiety. Remember that, at any age, there is no such thing as being completely carefree, and that some anxiety is normal and healthy. If it becomes a problem, there are many strategies you can employ to help them manage their feelings, and many skilled professionals ready and waiting to help.