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How to Help Kids With Anxiety

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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The latest statistics on anxiety show that anxiety is the most widespread and regularly occurring psychological challenge faced by people in the U.S. No segment of the population is immune. From young children to retired adults, anxiety affects over 40 million people across the country and it’s estimated that the health care bill for anxiety runs over 148 billion dollars per year.

Around 25% of adolescents between age 13 and 18 struggle with anxiety disorders (see link above). Early signs – especially in girls – may appear around the age of six. While most people are familiar with typical, run-of-the-mill worries, there are some people for whom worry can be debilitating. It can show up in a variety of ways, such as physical symptoms, emotional withdrawal, anger, or depression. In adults, it can affect their ability to perform on the job. For children, it can affect their ability to be happy and enjoy life. In children with significant anxiety issues, it can directly block their capacity to be joyous and carefree: in effect, it can keep them from simply being kids.

This post gives parents of teens an overview of how and when anxiety develops in children. If you recognize signs of anxiety in your teenager, you can use the criteria in this article as you review your teen’s early years. This knowledge will help if you decide you need to seek professional help. In addition, the tips we offer below can help parents with kids of any age manage their anxiety.

What is Anxiety?

Professor of psychology Thomas J. Huberty of Indiana University defines anxiety as “apprehension or excessive fear about real or imagined circumstances.” Typical, healthy anxiety first appears at around 7-9 months of age when infants begin to recognize and become wary of strangers. Separation anxiety occurs next, at around 12-18 months of age. Both of these types of anxiety usually work themselves out by around age two. When kids reach school age they experience day-to-day anxiety about friends and schoolwork. If a child is going to have trouble with anxiety, it typically shows up before the age of 8 and becomes attached to abstract things that are beyond their control. If a child shows signs of anxiety above and beyond what’s developmentally expected, then they may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder, which can lead to further mental health disorders such as depression.

Signs of Anxiety in Youth

The list below includes physical, behavioral, and mental signs commonly recognized by mental health professionals as indicators of anxiety in children. Parent and teachers should be aware that when viewed alone or even in small groups, the signs below can be considered typical behaviors that any child might display. It’s when two or more signs persist over weeks or months that adults might want to consider the anxiety is a significant problem.

Physical Signs

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sleep problems
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Problems breathing
  • Shaking
  • Extreme sweating
  • Unusual muscle tension

Behavioral Signs

  • Impulsivity
  • Excessive need for reassurance
  • Excessive talking
  • Fast talking
  • Habitual repetitive behaviors
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Excessive shyness

Mental Signs

  • Overreacting to small events
  • Constant fear of failure
  • Excessive fear of losing control
  • Extreme irritability
  • Challenges with problem solving
  • Impaired academic performance
  • Challenges with memory
  • Rigidity of thought

Tips for Helping Children with Anxiety

Mental health professionals agree that almost all cases of childhood anxiety can be handled productively without the use of medication. Below are some helpful tips for helping children who are dealing with anxiety. Whether it’s typical, age-appropriate anxiety or something more significant, all these approaches help:

Understand they’re not intentinally misbehaving.

Recognize that worry and anxiety in a child is not intentional misbehavior on their part. It’s how they’re dealing with things that they’re scared of and don’t have the tools to handle yet.

They need to know you understand.

Validate the feelings of the child in question. Real anxiety won’t go away by an adult simply saying “don’t worry about that”. It takes active listening on the part of the adult to understand what’s going on. When the child feels heard, they’ll be more likely to get on board with an adult’s suggestions about how to deal with worry and fear, i.e. anxiety.

They need your help.

Teach the child in question how to handle anxiety. Work with them to discover what triggers their anxiety and what techniques work to help alleviate it. Remind them that mistakes are a part of life and that everyone makes them, just about every day. Help them with things like counting to ten, taking a deep breath, or taking space from an anxiety-triggering situation. While these things may seem obvious to adults, these are tools young kids simply don’t have yet—their behavior is their way of saying “I can’t handle this emotion and I need your help.”

Keep a steady hand.

Be consistent with rules and outcomes. A child who doesn’t know what to expect from the adults in their life might justifiably develop worry and fear about how they will react to things.

Manage your own expectations.

Be realistic about anxiety. Don’t expect a child’s worries or fears to disappear overnight. it takes time, patience and love to help them handle the difficult emotions in life. Explain to the child in question why a little bit of anxiety is productive: it helps us predict and prepare for different outcomes of future events. Share with them how adults worry almost every day and how they handle those worries without letting them get out of control.

Seeking Help for Childhood Anxiety

If a child’s anxious behavior persists or begins to impair their social, academic, or personal functioning, then it might be a good idea to seek professional help. It’s widely accepted among mental health professionals that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are effective approaches that help children deal with anxiety in positive and productive ways. A skilled therapist takes time to get to know a child and listens to their particular set of challenges. They then offer a wide variety of techniques to help kids process stress and anxiety. Sometimes all it takes is someone to talk to – someone aside from a parent or a friend – and a child can learn how to handle the things that are tripping them up. Then they can get on with the real business at hand: being a kid.

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