Taming Your Child's Anxiety
Sometimes anxiety and childhood go hand in hand. Kids are constantly growing, and growth can mean new experiences, unfamiliar feelings and confusing situations. It’s enough to make anyone anxious. One in eight children has an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, but all children experience anxiety from time to time. Whether your child feels nervous about a family change, new school or rocky friendship, you can help. Here are some age-appropriate strategies to soothe jangled nerves and overgrown worries so kids can simply enjoy being kids.
First, know that some anxiety is a normal part of early childhood.
“It is quite typical for preschool-aged children to show some hesitation or anxiety in new situations,” says Kim Painter, a licensed psychologist and family therapist in Summit, N.J. Whether the stressor is a new teacher, preschool class or food, most children will “warm up” over time. How long it takes varies widely kid to kid, Painter says.
Some children need to be exposed to something new only a couple of times for anxiety to fade, while others might need up to 10 experiences with something or someone in order to feel comfortable. Parents can soothe an anxious tot by remaining calm themselves. Brief statements of encouragement are fine, but excessive reassurance only serves to “grow” the anxiety.
It’s important to note that you can’t save a child from experiencing some anxiety. “Don’t walk on eggshells to try to prevent it,” Painter says. “Instead, help a child face it.”
As children enter elementary and middle school, their social world grows — and so can anxiety about friendships, crushes and family relationships. The school years present specific situations that can stir up anxiety, Painter says.
“In middle school, students try to find where they fit in socially, and academic demands increase,” she says. “This is uncharted territory for most children. They’re expected to do more with more independence.”
Family conflict can be especially stressful for school-age children, who are just beginning to understand relationship dynamics. Parental feuds and high-conflict divorces can fuel anxiety that negatively impacts a child’s schoolwork, social life, sleep and overall well-being, says attorney Nadia A. Margherio of Sodoma Law in Charlotte.
“Talking negatively about the other parent can cause serious anxiety, stress and social problems,” Margherio says.
Minimize social stress by maintaining open communication, and when conflicts arise, never bad-mouth the other party.
For teens, changing bodies and churning hormones aren’t the only things upping the anxiety ante, Painter says. Increasing academic demands, peer pressure and concerns about fitting in socially can all add up to extra angst. Anxiety is normal for teenagers, and experiencing some anxiousness from time to time is part of growing up.
Occasional anxiety over something like a poor grade or a relationship problem is called “typical anxiety,” and it’s just that — typical. But if your teen experiences intense, frequent bouts of worry and nerves that affect schoolwork, relationships or work, it might be time to consult with a licensed psychologist.
Anxiety-related mental illness often begins during the teen years. Social Anxiety Disorder, which affects 15 million adults, typically appears around age 13. The good news: Anxiety is treatable. “With the appropriate help and support, overly anxious teens can get back to living a healthy life,” Painter says.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.