When we think of anxiety, we often think of adults. But the truth is, children as young as eight months can exhibit signs of anxiety, with many able to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as young as four. Anxiety in children looks similar to that of adults: constant worrying, extreme distress over normal activities or situations, restlessness, irritability, and even poor sleep.
When children are young, mild anxiety is normal. A child who cries when their parents walk away is a common and unlikely sign of anxiety disorder. But a child who continues to cry when their parents are gone long after toddler-hood and who begins to suffer in other areas of life because of their fear may want to be evaluated for anxiety.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), anxiety disorders are not due to bad parenting or stress (such as the loss of a loved one), but rather happen due to a combination of biological and environmental factors. If your child is suffering from anxiety, whether they are diagnosed with the disorder or not, do not feel like you have failed them. Instead, try these coping strategies to ease their anxiety.
15 Strategies to Help Your Child Cope with Anxiety
1. Talk about feelings often.
Often, anxiety in children happens when they feel they cannot talk to you about their worries. Things become less scary once they are talked out. Create conversations with your kids from a young age that encourage them to talk about all of their feelings, good and bad. As they get older, continually ask them about their feelings, so they are reminded that you are a safe place to air out any grievances.
2. Help them face their fears.
A child may become anxious about something new or unknown. Showing them that their fear is only due to this will help them overcome their negative feelings. If they become anxious at the playground, show them that they can’t get hurt on the swing if they use it safely. Something this simple can often help a child recover from anxious thoughts.
3. Get physical.
Even as adults, not moving enough can often lead to internalized anxiety and depression. Encourage your kids to get physical in ways that appeal to them. If they love sports, set time aside daily to ensure they can run around or kick a soccer ball. You can also find other ways to get physical, like a long nature walk, jumping on a trampoline, or helping around the house.
4. Practice mindfulness.
We hear about mindfulness a lot these days for ourselves, but it is also a great idea to practice with your kids. Take ten minutes out of their day and sit together and meditate. Use an app on your phone to help guide you through mindfulness techniques. Those ten minutes will go a long way in teaching them how to cope with stressful situations in the future.
5. Refocus their attention.
If your child is young and experiencing anxiety or distress, try to refocus them. Show them their favorite toy or bring them outside to pick up sticks. This works with older children, too—if they feel anxious over a test or an event coming up, try to keep their mind off of it by playing their favorite game or cooking a meal together.
6. Embrace the imagination.
When anxiety happens, teach your children to close their eyes and imagine their favorite place. Have them describe it out loud in detail until they can calm down. Younger children may benefit from asking them to count to 20 or recite their ABC’s. This refocuses their brain to think of something besides their current worry or fear.
7. Teach them breathing techniques.
Simple breathing techniques can make all the difference when it comes to anxiety. Teach your kids how to breathe deeply when they feel anxiety coming on. Start by having your child breathe in for ten seconds and out for ten seconds until they feel a sense of calm.
8. Create a calm space.
If your child experiences anxiety often, creating a calm space in your home can help them disconnect from those negative feelings. Consider putting up a tent filled with pillows and calming colors, or simply create a comfy spot in a corner of the playroom with their favorite books where they can go whenever they feel anxious.
9. Listen to a story.
Refocusing the mind is the basis of a lot of our coping strategies—and stories are a great way to disconnect from our own thoughts. Download children’s podcasts that they would enjoy or use a storytelling app. Television can often add to their distress, but listening forces them to use their imaginations, creating less space in their mind for anxious thoughts.
10. Encourage journaling (or doodling).
Older children may benefit from journaling. They can write about their days or write a fictional story. Younger children can get the same benefit of journaling by doodling or coloring.
11. Write down their fears.
Fear often comes from the unknown. Writing down our fears can make them seem less scary. When your child is anxious about something, have them write down their feelings and read them back to you or to themselves.
12. Create a specified “worry time.”
If anxiety is something your child seems to experience daily, create “worry time” in their day. Take 10 minutes to have them write down or talk about their worries and their fears. When those 10 minutes are up, have them say goodbye to those fears and worries and say you will revisit them (if needed) tomorrow.
13. Give hugs.
A simple, but possibly the most effective coping strategy is giving hugs. If your child feels anxious, a hug can do wonders to their psyche. You may also want to teach your children how to hug themselves. Self-care can go a long way in coping with their anxiety as they get older.
14. Take a long walk.
Fresh air and exercise are two things we always have available to us. When anxiety hits, get outside. Take a long walk or play in the backyard. If the weather isn’t cooperating, a long drive can also have the same effect.
15. Embrace the magic of water.
Surprisingly, a cold glass of water can help ease anxious thoughts. Dehydration doesn’t cause anxiety, but it can make our feelings worse. A hot shower or a cold bath in the middle of the day can also help calm nerves.
If you feel your child is suffering from extreme anxiety, and these strategies may not work for them, consult your doctor as soon as possible.