Is Your Child Feeling Anxious?
My colleagues and I have seen an increase in the number of anxious children coming through our doors this past year. These kids have faced stress from the effects of COVID-19 on their families, friends, school routines, and social activities. They’ve heard news coverage of traumatic events such as wildfires, elections, and racial injustice. Their anxiety is understandable.
Stress can cause kids to have physical symptoms. I’ve seen this at times in my own family. When my daughter was in high school and preparing for finals, she would have trouble falling asleep, become moody or irritable, complain of stomach aches, and sometimes have trouble focusing.
Her symptoms were caused by anxiety. But what is anxiety? It’s our body’s natural response to stress or danger. It keeps watch so we can avoid harm, and helps us get ready for action if danger is detected.
However sometimes, anxiety can backfire by giving us a “false alarm.” We can experience symptoms about things that aren’t actually physically dangerous.
There are things parents can do to help a child manage anxiety:
- Normalize your child’s thoughts.
Let them know that everyone feels anxious at times – it’s part of being human. Share times when you’ve felt this way, such as before a job interview. Talk about the symptoms you experienced. This can help kids understand that even though anxiety can make us feel bad, it can’t hurt us. So, we can work on not letting it control us.
- Keep a Family Routine.
When my son is stressed, he likes to go for bike rides and cook with me. Continuing normal family activities even during periods of stress helps prevent anxiety from disrupting our children’s lives too much. This has been challenging while living through a pandemic! But, sticking to a schedule and continuing to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and your children’s achievements will help calm your kids and get them through challenging times.
- Name it to tame it.
Reflect what you see. For example, if your child starts to cry say, “It seems like you’re getting teary. Are you feeling sad?” When my son was younger, we used charts with pictures of different emotions to help him convey his feelings. This helped him feel calmer, better understand his emotions, and have more control of his reactions as he got older.
Validation helps our children know their feelings are okay and make sense in a particular situation. If they’re worried about entering a crowded store you could say, “I see you’re stressed about going into the store. I’ve felt that way before too. What is it that’s bothering you right now? Can you tell me why?”
In addition, checking the facts on those “worry thoughts” can help them get grounded in what’s true. Some worries might be based on facts, and you can validate their feelings. Others may be exaggerated or based on false information, and you can help kids see that.
- Practice bravery.
At a recent well-child visit, one of my patients came dressed as a superhero, complete with a cape and helmet. I loved the way his mom helped him channel his brave, superhero self. Giving him his vaccines was a breeze!
- Don’t avoid anxiety; face those challenges together.
Don’t just avoid activities or places that worry your children. Help them face those challenges. One patient was scared to come to the doctor, so his parents drove by the office a few times, then parked and walked around, and visited me to say, “Hi!” a few times as well. Once it was time for his visit, he was much more prepared.
My neighbor’s daughter overcame her fears by practicing petting a stuffed animal till she was ready to pet the pooches in our neighborhood. Snuggles with a parent or a favorite stuffed toy, deep breaths, and meditation during this preparation phase, plus a reward at the end, can help lots!
Reach out for help
Connect with your pediatrician to ask about counseling services if anxiety seems to affect your child’s activities too much.
For extra help at home, try the Calm app – it’s free for all Kaiser members and has meditations you can practice with your child.
This post was written by Padmaja Padalkar, M.D.
Resources for Parents
My Doctor Online
The American Academy of Pediatrics
Breaking Free of Child Anxiety and OCD: A Scientifically Proven Program for Parents by Eli Lebowitz
The Anxiety Workbook for Teens by Lisa Schab
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner
Disclaimer: If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following: (1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder. This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.