Written by Josh Cabral , MS, LMHC
Childhood anxiety has increased to near pandemic proportions over the last decade. Due to the rapidly changing landscapes of schools, homes, technology, and multiple other factors, there is no question that anxiety has become one of the leading health epidemics that afflict our children’s health and development. However, parents and professionals often lack the necessary knowledge to help a child navigate and appropriately manage their anxiety symptoms. Here are some important things to remember when the moment of anxiety strikes for your child.
Do not tell your anxious child to calm down
I understand as a parent, pediatrician, or other professional we are used to solving problems and applying fixes. However, this is counterproductive. Rest assured, if your child were able to calm down, they would. No child wants to experience anxiety or panic symptoms. It is much more helpful to direct them to appropriate relaxation or distraction strategies that will help them to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and nervous systems.
Do not attempt to reason with your anxious child
Again, this is a well intentioned and loving intervention. We just want our children to understand that they are safe. Unfortunately that does not make it a particularly helpful intervention. As adults, we have the necessary development and reasoning skills to understand that we are not in any real danger and therefore are able to regulate ourselves accordingly. Depending on your child’s age and stage of life, they may have a number of years before they have the necessary brain structure to be proficient in this kind of thing. Often children understand their anxiety is irrational in some way. Pointing that out to them will likely only result in embarassing or shaming them for not being able to control those powerful emotions. Take a minute to be present with and validate your child’s anxiety and reassure them that they will be okay.
Do not ask your child “what is wrong/the matter/etc.” with them
Nothing is wrong with your child when they are experiencing anxiety. A large percentage of childhood anxiety is developmentally appropriate and they will learn to manage those emotions at varying levels throughout their life cycle just as we did… well just as many of us did… Some of us did? In fact, with early enough detection and treatment, the portion of the population that is diagnosed with clinical anxiety may actually “outgrow” that anxiety based on some of the most current research we have in developmental neuroscience. The most helpful thing that you can do is to normalize your child’s anxiety and address it. This can be quite reassuring for a child because they don’t feel different or isolated because of their anxious symptoms.
Do not NOT talk about your child’s anxiety
As mentioned above we want to normalize our child’s anxiety symptoms. That requires that we start a dialogue early about what anxiety is, what it means, and how we all experience different emotions at varying levels. Too often parents and other professionals are unwilling to talk about anxiety. This may be due to lack of subject matter knowledge, fear, concerns around stigma, etc. Whatever the barriers are to speaking with your child about anxious feelings, early dialogue leads to the healthiest therapeutic outcomes.
Do not be anxious about your child’ anxiety
Finally, in the spirit of breaking my first rule (for parents only)... Calm down. We know so much more about anxiety today than we did years ago and we are learning more all the time. In reality even if your child struggles with clinically significant anxiety there are a multitude of strategies, resources, and treatments available to your child that lead to successful outcomes.
Whether you have concerns that your child is suffering with an anxiety disorder or you just feel that your child is “shy”, consult a mental health professional near you. Finding a therapist who specializes in anxiety, pediatrics, or ideally both can make all the difference in securing a happy and healthy future for your child.
Josh Cabral is Executive Director and a Psychotherapist at The Well and is also a Behavioral Health Consultant at Bridgewater Pediatrics. He has worked with children and families on a variety of issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, trauma, and other behavioral issues.