Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety

A small girl blows soap bubbles.The high rates of childhood anxiety in the United States disproves the idea that childhood is a carefree time for every person. Studies vary but show that at least 10% of school-age children report symptoms of anxiety. Untreated, at least 40% of these children will grow into adulthood with an anxiety condition.

Symptoms of childhood anxiety include extreme shyness, avoidant behaviors, constant worrying, clinging, physical distress (upset stomach, headaches, fatigue), sleeping problems, difficulty staying focused on a task, and expressions of self-doubt and uncertainty. These children may need lots of reassurance, refuse to go to school, avoid eye contact, shrink from new situations, or avoid performance situations. Their growth and development and academic or social progress is often impaired.

Childhood anxiety is a growing problem due to the increased stresses of current-day life. Children experience thier parents’ worry, anxiety, and depression. Financial worries, moving, changing schools, along with parental conflict or divorce, are some of the major stressors that push a child’s coping skills to the limit and can bring on the onset of acute anxiety symptoms.

How can parents or the adults in a child’s life help the child cope with anxiety?

  1. Parents must work on their own anxiety and the maladaptive communication patterns they transmit to the child. Caretakers who have good coping skills are important models for the child. Parents must work on their own anxiety and the maladaptive communication patterns they transmit to the child. Caregivers who have good coping skills are important models for the child. Being around any calm person is calming.
  2. Set aside quiet time every day for calming activities; after school or before bedtime are good times. This might include one-on-one time with the child to talk, read stories, listen to soft music, or have a snack. Relaxation CDs are available for children.
  3. Talk with the child’s teacher if the stress is school related. Academic pressures, learning problems, and bullying are a few of the issues that may be difficult for the child to cope with.
  4. If the child is shy, encourage and help him or her engage in activities with other children. Help him or her learn the social skills that will make him or her more comfortable around other children.
  5. If none of the helping strategies are effective, consider psychotherapy. There now exists specialized therapy strategies for the different types of childhood anxiety problems.

© Copyright 2009 by By Evelyn Goodman, Psy.D, LMFT, therapist in Culver City, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kevin H.

    Kevin H.

    December 16th, 2009 at 3:26 PM

    Kids today are exposed to a lot of pressure from all sides…be it parental pressure, peer pressure or academic pressure. There is not one pressure that is more prevalent than the others, because all are equally damaging to the personality of a child.

    Parents, instead of putting their child under more pressure, should try and help relax and calm the kid. The kid needs reassurance!

  • d. blenda

    d. blenda

    December 16th, 2009 at 3:55 PM

    I think therapy is the best of the options to look into if your child is exhibiting the above-mentioned behaviors. It is a good way to fix the problem and get your child out of it such that there is no chance of relapse.

  • Lydia

    Lydia

    December 16th, 2009 at 4:34 PM

    Sad to think that there are kids who can’t enjoy being a kid due to pressures like this.

  • Evelyn Goodman

    Evelyn Goodman

    December 16th, 2009 at 10:06 PM

    What saddens me about this is that so many kids aren’t getting
    the help they need. When they do it’s usually a pill. The number of children on medication, especially antidepressants, is staggering. While meds are helpful for some kids, it’s still very important to deal with the underlying issues.
    Another problem is the small number of therapists who have been trained to work with anxious children and their families.

  • cindy c

    cindy c

    December 17th, 2009 at 5:27 AM

    I feel sad that little kids go through such an ordeal… maybe we were lucky because the conditions were relatively better, with fewer things to worry about.

  • Charla Richardson

    Charla Richardson

    December 17th, 2009 at 2:17 PM

    Most families are not having enough ‘together time’ due to high work-pressure for the parents,and this is leading to the kids being and feeling neglected and let to their gadgets and lonliness.This brings in a lot of negative thoughts and energy and the parents must act before this negative energy snowballs and takes over their kids’ minds.It can have major impacts in the long run.

  • soldy

    soldy

    December 18th, 2009 at 8:49 PM

    I have an acquaintance who is very nervous. She’s lovely but not good around strangers and worries about everything. Her seven year old daughter is taking on many of her traits like unconscious hand wringing, throat clearing when talking and very little eye contact. I don’t feel it’s my place to point it out. The child’s a nervous wreck and my mother said that this woman’s mother was exactly the same. How does a cycle like that get broken when the family doesn’t see it?

  • Pearl

    Pearl

    December 18th, 2009 at 9:11 PM

    Please, don’t get me started on giving pills to children. For the vast majority they should be the last resort, not the first. Therapy should be top of the list and miles ahead of meds.

    Children need their family’s attention and nurturing, not a prescription. Try a little tenderness.

  • LaScala

    LaScala

    December 18th, 2009 at 10:15 PM

    Evelyn, do you think parental attitudes about medicating children have shifted? Some parents even appear disappointed or angry if the doctor doesn’t give them pills for their kids. I was on phenobarbital over thirty years ago and remember the look (a mixture of sympathy with a little disapproval and fear too) that was on other parents’ faces when they saw little me taking the pill. I vaguely recall my mom being upset about having to give me them too. It was hardly spoken about although I was on them maybe two years.

    And Evelyn, thanks for a great article!

  • Evelyn Goodman

    Evelyn Goodman

    December 18th, 2009 at 10:37 PM

    I agree with all the above comments. As for breaking the cycle of anxiety that is passed down this can be difficult if the parent is unaware of both her anxiety reactions as well as her daughter’s. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I know someone who took pictures of her (anxious) niece at a family gathering. She nonchalantly sent them to her brother and his wife. Some of the pictures had the little girl biting her nails and other anxious behaviors. She thinks it was the first step towards overcoming the denial of their daughters’ anxiety.

    Very frequently it is a teacher who makes the parents aware of their children’s difficulties. But if you are the only one
    concerned about her you might try in a gentle, nonblaming manner to point out how she and her daughter are similar in their anxious mannerisms. You’ll find out how open she is to looking at that. Good luck!

  • Elizabeth R.

    Elizabeth R.

    December 18th, 2009 at 10:39 PM

    Children have lost that carefree air, have they not? With each generation that passes, we see more anxious and unhappy than uninhibited and carefree kids. It’s very sad that fear is taking hold of their sensibilities at a younger and younger age.

    The sparkle of possibilities doesn’t shine so bright in their eyes. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Evelyn. That may help put it back. :)

  • Evelyn Goodman

    Evelyn Goodman

    December 18th, 2009 at 10:49 PM

    Attitudes about children getting treatment has shifted over the decades. The good news is that stigma is being reduced.
    However, the expectation is the treatment means meds as the first line of help. This is convenient and cheaper and is reinforced by the medical community, HMO’s, and pharmaceutical companies. Many parents don’t realize there is treatment tailored for anxious children (and adolescents). Some don’t have the time or money to deal with it. Clearly this isn’t the case with all families, as I work with anxious children and their families.

    I used to do grand rounds at hospitals discussing these issues. Most of the questions the MD’s asked pertained to medication for children. At that time only Prozac had been
    researched and approved. They didn’t realize there were other options.

  • Francis W.

    Francis W.

    December 18th, 2009 at 10:54 PM

    I agree, Elizabeth. Is it possibly because parents tell them too much too soon nowadays that so many are anxious? When I was small I knew nothing beyond don’t talk to strangers and watch for cars before you cross the road. Now parents want to spill their guts and inform kids of every possible danger out there, no matter how remote the chances of it happening are. In the process, they are terrifying them!

    Parents themselves need to chill out and take a good look at the world view they’re presenting to their children and how balanced their perspective is.

  • Evelyn Goodman

    Evelyn Goodman

    December 19th, 2009 at 1:23 PM

    I think there were always parents who parentified a child, particularly a sensitive one. I started working with anxious adults 30 years ago and often heard how my client was a parents support system. Many of my adult clients described being anxious as children; some were even in therapy at a young age. Even if a child seems willing and able to listen to their parents problem it puts too much of a load on them emotionally.
    And there have always been anxious and cautious parents who warn their child about every possible danger out there. The sensitive, anxiety-prone child will take it in and become worried themselves.

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