What, Me Worry? Raising a Healthy Child in the Age of Anxiety

Anxiety is not just a problem for adults.  Even small children can develop symptoms of anxiety over seemingly minor events and circumstances. Something as mundane as being unable to tie his or her own shoes when other classmates are able to do so could be anxiety producing for a kindergartner or first grader.  Below are some tips for coping with your child’s anxiety at different stages.

The younger a child is, the harder it is for him or her to be able to communicate effectively about what exactly is causing the stress. Those aged six to 11 can benefit by parents noticing out loud that something appears to be bothering them. There is no need to attach clinical words like “anxiety” to their behavior, as that alone could be unnerving if they perceive that something serious is wrong with them. Asking an open-ended question preceded by an observation can be sufficient to begin a dialogue: “Something seems to be bothering you. Can we talk about it?”

Because there is a great deal of fluctuation in kids’ rate of development, at this age parents should be prepared to step up if their child is not developmentally ready for some activity. Watching a mildly scary movie, going on an overnight at a friend’s house or going on a “big kid” carnival ride may be too much for your child at this age. Don’t make a big deal out of it to your child or their friends or another adult. Remove your anxious child from the situation and help him or her decompress by taking part in a familiar comforting routine or activity. Later you can discuss how the incident made them feel at the time.

Children 12 to 15 years of age often experience anxiety, not just specifically in school and social settings, but more generalized, as they come to realize that some seriously bad things happen out there in the world.  Worries over school shootings, domestic terrorism, natural disasters, and other staples of our 24-hour news cycle bombarding us may produce genuine anxiety in kids in this age group.

Parents do not want to raise children too fearful to experience life, but also should beware of dismissing their children’s concerns out of hand.  Instead, acknowledging that bad people sometimes do bad things, but providing concrete statistics on the rarity of experiencing catastrophes like air disasters, terrorism incidents, or school shootings can help put their concerns in perspective.  Discussing strategies to protect them “just in case” can be empowering for some anxious kids.

When their anxieties are focused more on social situations, role-playing how kids can respond when offered alcohol or marijuana can give them the confidence they need to turn down later opportunities to experiment with forbidden substances.

Older children, 16 to 20 years of age, who suffer from crippling anxiety attacks, may need clinical assessments and medication to cope, but pharmaceutical intervention may not be the first response.  At this age, older teens and young adults may be focusing on ways to manage their anxiety.  Parents cannot and should not rush in with quick fixes, but they can introduce effective coping strategies for their older kids to implement (some of these are also great for younger children who experience anxiety as well).  Below are some positive ways in which to minimize stress and anxiety.

  • Meditation
  • Breathing techniques
  • Keeping a stress journal
  • Exercising regularly
  • Cutting back on caffeine
  • Avoiding alcohol or drugs
  • Interacting with pets
  • Volunteering with an animal shelter or children’s group

Remember that your job as a parent is not to protect your children from every harm or disappointment they encounter in life, and attempting to do so is actually emotionally crippling to them.  It is far better for them to learn to identify which situations and activities are likely to cause them anxiety, and then develop healthy ways to cope with the ensuing rush of anxiety.

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