By Guest Blogger Regina Alexander, LCSW
We all think of childhood as a carefree time, where the child’s only job is to be curious and learn new things. As parents we may wish we could go back to a time when we did not have to worry about bills and schedules and juggling different aspects of life. It may be easy for us to say to our children, “What do you have to worry about? Just go play and be a kid!” But for some children, life is not as idyllic and carefree as adults think, and that’s not just children who live in difficult situations or have suffered trauma or loss.
Some children begin to experience anxiety early in life. Many things can cause it – they may see something on TV and be convinced it may happen to them, or hear older children talking about topics they cannot yet comprehend. Some children worry excessively that they will not be the best at school or sports or dance, while others worry that although they have plenty of friends they might lose them some day. Gifted children often experience existential anxiety, due to the lack of concrete answers to the questions their brains think up. Some children just seem to get stuck on a negative thought and be unable to let it go.
It can be extremely hard for a parent to watch their child worry. Often we wonder if we’ve done something wrong, or if the child is picking up on our stress. We just want to fix it – to take that sticky thought and put it away forever so our child doesn’t lose anymore sleep or lose focus on having fun. Unfortunately, just as our kisses do not really erase boo-boo’s, we cannot take away our children’s anxiety. What we can do is teach them to deal with it.
Whether your 3 year old is afraid to sleep in her own room or your 10 year old cannot stop thinking about what it means to die, there are some skills that are helpful for kids to have to deal with worry and stress. Children can learn to use their senses to overcome fear and anxiety. Think about what has always calmed your child, and turn that into something he can do to calm himself. For instance, if a lullaby soothed your toddler, teach him to hum the lullaby to himself for comfort. Practice deep breathing with your child, and explain to him how focusing on one’s breath can distract from anxiety and calm the body as well as the mind. Make stretching a part of your morning routine, and do simple guided visualizations at night before bedtime to close out the day. These techniques may be difficult to do in the middle of a scary situation, but if they are part of a regular routine your child will be much better able to access them as coping skills when he is scared.
It is also important to teach your child that fear and anxiety have a purpose. Anxiety is our body’s way of getting our attention to prepare us for something important. If your child understands how his body feels when he is beginning to get anxious, and that being anxious means there is something important he needs to pay attention to, he can begin to make anxiety work for him.
As with any emotional or behavioral concerns, if the anxiety begins to negatively impact the child’s functioning professional help may be needed to deal with it. A therapist may use play therapy or narrative therapy to help a young child understand and learn to deal with anxious feelings. Likewise, coping with stress is an important life skill for all teens to learn, and a therapist would be able to help teach some of these things. Even if professional help is needed, it is still important for children and teens to see good coping modeled in the home, so continue to help your child learn about his feelings and discover ways to handle them. This way, your child will know you are there to help and you get to be his cheerleader as he conquers his anxiety.
Can you relate? Please add any tips you may have in the comments below!