Making Sense of Sensitivity: How to Help Your Anxious Child

child with stress and anxietyThese days, most of us live with some degree of stress. For kids, between their homework, friends, after-school activities, sports, and worries about getting into college, it’s a whole new era of anxiety. It’s no wonder, then, that the National Institute of Mental Health states that the prevalence of diagnosed anxiety disorders among 13- to 18-year-olds is 25.1%.

If you’re a parent living with an anxious child, you know how tiring and frustrating it can be—for both of you. It’s not easy to live with the kid who’s so stressed out by homework assignments that he ends up throwing the book against the wall, or tearing the papers in frustration, or working until midnight to get it perfect. Or the teen who gets a migraine every time she has to go to school or start a new activity. With a little insight into how they feel, why they act the way they do, and what we can do to help, the job of parenting anxious kids gets a little easier.

How They Feel

Anxiety doesn’t always show up as worry. Sometimes it looks like anger, irritability, sadness, or fear. After a full day at school worrying and obsessing, kids often come home exhausted—and immediately act out.

Imagine spending an entire day in fight-or-flight mode. That’s when the brain perceives a danger and thus produces adrenaline and stress hormones to prepare for a quick getaway, like a caveman running from a tiger. This causes physical sensations such as dizziness, faster heartbeat, rapid breathing, and sweaty palms. In this state, it’s tough to think clearly or make good, informed decisions. Even the most mature of us might lash out after all that.

Then again, sometimes these struggling kids look like stereotypical “normal” kids—at least at school, where they may crave the approval of the teachers. Keeping very contained gives them a sense of control over their environment, helping to minimize the risk of what they see as danger. But when they come home, everything changes. In the safety of their own room, they might have panic attacks, refuse to follow rules, or get violent.

What This Is NOT

If you lived with this level of stress every day, you’d probably come home and explode, too—and maybe you do. Kids tend to store up their stress and take it out on those they can trust: their parents and family members. Sometimes your home might feel like a battlefield.

What’s important to know is that this is not manipulation. Your child doesn’t want to be this way. It’s easy to think that he or she is acting out in order to get attention, or that if the child were less spoiled, less spiteful, or less rebellious, he or she would stop being “bratty.” But in reality, no one, especially a sensitive kid, would choose to constantly be in trouble.

Your child doesn’t want to be this way. It’s easy to think that he or she is acting out in order to get attention, or that if the child were less spoiled, less spiteful, or less rebellious, he or she would stop being “bratty.” But in reality, no one, especially a sensitive kid, would choose to constantly be in trouble.

Anxious children may lose it for a handful of reasons:

  • Lack of self-control
  • Storing up their frustration until it explodes
  • Guilt
  • Low self-esteem
  • Unconsciously testing parents

How We Can Help

Anxious children generally lack two vital skills for reacting with calm and rationality. The first is regulation, or the ability to calm oneself. The second is self-soothing tools, or alternatives to turn to when their emotional temperature spikes.

The first way parents can help kids regulate is by modeling regulation. The more calm you are, the more they’ll learn from that ability. Research shows that humans’ heart rates attune with the people that they feel close to. So if someone holds us in a loving way, our heartbeats will often increase or decrease to match theirs.

Therefore, one way to help them relax is to reverse-match our activity to theirs. In other words, as they go up, we go down. If their bodies become jerky or uncontrolled, we keep our movements fluid and slow. As their volumes raise, we modulate our voices even more. And if they become angry or even nasty, we remain loving and firm.

Self-soothing tools fall into two main catagories: physical and mental. (These tools require some practice, and only their basics are described here.) Physical tools include breathing and stretching. Check out Dawn Huebner’s book, What To Do When You Worry Too Much, for great examples of how to stretch. Breathing exercises and body movement exercises help reset the inner thermostat. Exercise also helps to calm the body, so throwing a ball, jumping on a trampoline, or dancing around the living room are great ideas for breaks.

Mental self-soothing is achieved by thinking calming thoughts. This can be done with words, like a mantra that replaces the anxious thought. For instance, when a child says, “I can’t do it,” or, “I always screw up,” you can help him or her practice saying, “I just need to try my best.” Ask the child to come up with some alternate statements that make him or her feel better, and practice together.

In addition to words, images can also be self-soothing. Where is your child’s favorite place? Could he or she create an imaginary haven? When feeling stressed, have your child conjure up this “safe space” in his or her mind, whether it’s a sandy beach, flower garden, or private room. Breathing slowly and thinking about a quiet and peaceful place calms the body and soothes the mind.

The Long-Term Upside

These are sensitive kids; that’s why they feel things so deeply. So it’s helpful to remember the flipside of that sensitivity. These are children who tend to be insightful, empathetic, tuned in, passionate, dramatic, and thoughtful. They often thrive in creative pursuits and go on to amazing careers in helping professions. The traits that are so challenging to them now will serve them well as adults. For now, the best we can do is teach them to channel their sensitivity into self-care.

Reference:

Any anxiety disorder among children. (2015). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-children.shtml

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Tarzana, California

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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  • kaitlyn

    kaitlyn

    March 31st, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    I guess that it was serendipity that I was reading through here today and found this. My daughter has been experiencing extreme anxiety over school mostly I think and it has been manifesting itself as all kinds of stomach trouble. We have been through test after test with nothing physical showing up thank goodness, but we still need to get to what is actually causing the problems. Her pediatrician seems to think it all points to stress, and so we are going to pursue that path and see what we can figure out.

  • Sonia

    Sonia

    March 31st, 2015 at 1:33 PM

    You are certainly right on target with the fact that there are days when it does feel like he is manipulating me and playing with my feelings all so that he can get something that he wants. I will be honest when I say that even as an adult it is sometimes hard to know how to handle this thoughtfully, even though I am an adult and should know what to do with these feelings. When I think about it in that way it makes me sad to know that this is my child, a 9 year old boy, so if I struggle with knowing how to handle it then how do I ever think that he is old enough to know how to handle it?

  • Anaid Z.

    Anaid Z.

    March 31st, 2015 at 10:12 PM

    This article describes my son, he is 7 and he showed all these signs since he starts pre-school. He was diagnosed with anxiety and mild depression last year and it is very hard to internalized how a young kind has depression and anxiety when he looks so normal. People who does not know will never suspect he has it. He show this anxiety when he is at school more than other scenarios. My battle is with school because even when they have the diagnose from a psychologist they still want to treat him as he is just a kid who seeks attention. How can I deal with school about this situation? All suggestions are welcome.

  • tammi

    tammi

    May 9th, 2015 at 2:54 PM

    This is a good short article. Additionally, if you have or work with anxious children there are a number of good resources available to help you and them. Two of my favorites are:
    amazon.com/Parenting-Child-Who-Intense-Emotions/dp/1572246499#

    amazon.com/The-Explosive-Child-Understanding-Chronically/dp/0062270451

  • Nekisha

    Nekisha

    April 1st, 2015 at 12:57 AM

    This is a very timely article and very well written. Many times these are your students always claiming to ‘be sick’, wanting to call home or visit the school counselor or nurse because of the anxiety and stress they feel in the classroom and other areas of the school (i.e lunch room, P.E. , etc.) I do believe that teaching kids to self regulate and calm themselves is crucial and teaching these skills must begin at home with parents. If anxiety persist or worsens, or is trauma related, it may become necessary to speak with a pediatrician or mental health professional for more support.

  • sarah k

    sarah k

    April 1st, 2015 at 6:16 AM

    My 8 year old daughter gets extremely anxious.. She is literally afraid of everything… She is happy, very clever, beautiful, popular but is terrified to try anything new… Even food… Any advice?

  • Alice P.

    Alice P.

    April 2nd, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    Think of all of the times that you yourself have struggled with anxiety in your own life. And think about ways that you tried to control that. I think that what we need to do is to share some of those tips with the child who could also be feeling this way and to learn through this experience together.

    Not everything is always going to work for stress and anxiety reduction the very first time that you try and what works for one person may not work for another.

    But you owe it to your child to help them search, help them practice, and help them find a way to reduce some of that in their lives.

  • Vicki Botnick

    Vicki Botnick

    April 3rd, 2015 at 2:42 PM

    Anaid, I don’t know what state you live in, but most public school systems have counselors or school psychologists who can help assess your child and come up with accomodations in the classroom to help him. If he’s acting out in class, it’s in their interest to figure out how to help.

  • Vicki Botnick

    Vicki Botnick

    April 3rd, 2015 at 2:45 PM

    Hi Sarah, without knowing anything about what could be behind your daughter’s fears, I’d suggest you start by giving her lots of control over her decisions, especially food; try to make trying new things fun (make eating a game, or a comeptition to see who can take the smallest bite); and give her transitional objects–a doll, a photograph of you to carry with her, or a stress ball–so she can soothe herself when she’s trying a new activity.

  • Courtney

    Courtney

    April 4th, 2015 at 5:37 AM

    I can always see such extreme differences in my girls when I model behavior to them that I would like for them to exhibit.’Maybe they are not anxious but they might be escalating into a tantrum, but if I pull back a little and remain more calm then I know that there is a greater likelihood that they will be able to maintain at that level too. I want them to learn how to express their feelings but without it naturally growing into behavior that is so out of control.

  • glenda

    glenda

    April 7th, 2015 at 1:50 PM

    It can be hard to see your child come home and already have this look of frustration on their face and you just know that everything after school is all going to go downhill.

    You try to be understanding and sympathetic to their needs but you have had a hard day and are stressed out too, and so it can be a real challenge when both of you are feeling somewhat the same way about your day.

    Sometimes you want to be the one who can scream and shout and let out that frustration, but what is that ever going to teach your child except this is how we deal and cope? This is managing, this is simply being angry and yet having nothing productive to do about it.

  • Marybeth E

    Marybeth E

    April 13th, 2019 at 9:31 AM

    Bravo! Right on point! Support, kindness and thinking out of the box can go along way.!( and costs no $$). We all want to win with happiness and good health. Support the anxious client, adult, child or family to feel the comfort that he/she will be heard and validated!
    .

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