By Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C
Anxiety. Just the word itself can be, well…anxiety producing! While it may be hard to define, we have all come to recognize the feeling of anxiety when we experience it — nervously prepping for a big interview, sweating in anticipation of a difficult conversation, pacing while awaiting the results of a medical test, and the list could go on!
For those of us with children in our lives, we’ve also likely witnessed them struggle with anxiety from time to time, whether they (or we) recognize it or not – crying at daycare drop off, stressing over a test, and the like.
So, how do we know when anxiety has crossed the line from normal to clinical? How do we recognize anxiety when it doesn’t fit this classic nervous mold? And, how can we support our little ones when they are experiencing big worries?
Most of us are able to identify anxiety as it comes up in our lives, and while we typically think of anxiety as an unpleasant experience, anxiety, in its most productive form, is actually quite useful. For example, if you weren’t worried about an upcoming test, you probably wouldn’t study or pass!
We also want our kids to experience a healthy dose of anxiety around expectations we’ve set for them. Worry about consequences like getting caught or getting hurt can be a big motivator when it comes to following the rules for both kids and adults alike.
Anxiety turns from productive to problematic when our experience overwhelms our ability to cope. While children are no different than adults in their feelings of anxiety, they have far fewer living experiences, less effective coping skills, and more limited communication skills. Therefore, children can experience more intense and frequent bursts of anxiety.
While there are many times that we are able to see and anticipate our children’s anxiety without much difficulty (for example, a child afraid to be in alone in the dark), sometimes anxiety can look less like nervousness and more like emotional or behavioral disruptions – making it more difficult to recognize.
Let’s consider two children, both of whom are anxious about going to school. In our classic nervous presentation, Child One may cry and beg not to go, refuse to get out of the car or let go of a parent’s hand when he or she arrives. We’d probably easily assess that this child was anxious.
Now consider the second child, who does not fit this “nervous” anxiety presentation. Child Two shares the same anxiety about going to school, but instead of crying and demonstrating difficulty separating, this child might refuse to get dressed, throw breakfast on the floor or get sassy with adults.
Anxiety sometimes can take the form of impulsivity, irritability or reactivity just as commonly as it can look like nervousness.
Here are some tips to consider next time you find yourself faced with an anxious child:
1. Stay calm. Our little ones take their emotional cues from us. When they are having big feelings, it’s that much more important for us to be their calm. Rising to their level will only escalate their anxiety and their reactions to it. Also, when we are calm, we enhance our ability to problem solve and to respond with intention rather than reaction.
2. Get to the root of the problem. While we can’t ignore behaviors that are unsafe or inappropriate, if we only focus on the behavior, then we’re missing a big opportunity to manage their anxiety. When the situation gets stressful, step back and ask yourself, “What’s really going on here?” See if you can put the behavioral correction on hold and instead address the anxiety directly. What does your child need right now – reassurance that you’ll pick them up at the end of the day? Help dealing with a bully? Worry about a big test or new teacher? Start there.
3. Show empathy. Even if you don’t understand or agree with their worry or reactions, be careful not to belittle their feelings. Don’t get caught in the “It’s Ok” or “don’t worry” trap. These are empty reassurances that don’t help. For your little one it doesn’t feel OK, they feel worried for a reason. Our best approach is to work with them to figure out the reason and use that as a starting point for compassion and problem solving.
4. Circle back later. Can’t figure out what’s up? Try again when things aren’t so stressful. In quieter moments don’t hesitate to return to this inquiry to see whether you or your child might have any insight. You can start the conversation by saying something like, “This morning you seemed pretty upset. I noticed you having a hard time getting dressed and out the door. Let’s talk about what was going on so that together we can make it easier for you tomorrow.” With a plan, they can more confidently tackle this worry.
5. Be proactive. If you anticipate something might be stressful for your child, do your best to prepare them ahead and to ward off any potential worries. Practicing coping skills (like deep breathing, or reciting a mantra), anticipating challenges and pitfalls, problem solving, rehearsing, and offering meaningful reassurances can be key in helping your child competently, and confidently, manage their worries before they even happen.
While we all have to accept that anxiety and worry are an important, and unavoidable, part of the human experience, we do not have to live with anxiety that is chronically debilitating.
If you find your child to be frequently immobilized, acting out or otherwise significantly impacted by anxiety, he or she may benefit from professional help in learning new, or more effective, coping skills. Coping lets us navigate anxiety in ways that allow us to experience all the care and joy life has to offer.
Stacey Meadows is Manager of Children Therapy services for JCS.
Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.