Anxiety is on the rise in the United States. Many adults would agree with that statement due to our tumultuous current events. Just watching the news for a few minutes makes me wonder where our country is headed and how will our current leaders take care of our country. I ask myself, “Should I be doing more? How can I help?”
When adults feel anxious, children do, too. Young children learn everything through their senses and a major sensory input comes from their observation of non-verbal cues and tone of voice exhibited by the adults around them. “Too much information” should be a sticker children wear each day to remind us that even the most precocious child cannot cognitively interpret adult worries correctly.
All children experience anxiety in specific times of development. Children from 8 months through preschool show distress when separating from their parents. Or they can experience short-term fears from storms, animals or strangers. Feelings come in all sizes and shapes. When you help children express and understand their emotions and challenges you are helping them to understand others and communicate. You can help them deal with little feelings, big ones and everything in between.
Children are egocentric and believe they may be the cause of worry or unhappiness their parents feel. What a tremendous burden to bear at a young age. Anxiety affects both working memory and efficiency and can lead to meltdowns. It is our job as adults to help children be carefree and enjoy childhood for as long as possible. If a child does become anxious and we encourage him to “calm down”, we are assuming he knows what that means and that he has the skillset to do so.
What are some signs of anxiety in children?
- Somatic complaints like stomachaches, nausea, light-headedness or frequent trips to the bathroom
- Distorted thoughts like preoccupation with failure or perfectionism • Behavioral like avoidance, shut down and refusal to participate in schoolwork
- Frequent tears
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it. These tips for helping anxious children are helpful for all ages!
- Respect feelings, validate them, without empowering them
- Talk about transitions before they happen and give realistic expectations
- Ask open-ended questions rather than leading questions
- Keep anxiety situations short rather than avoiding them
- Start the day with meditation – or relaxing yoga exercises
- Provide small breaks like getting a drink of water or cognitive breaks like working on a puzzle
- Make it manageable – every thing in small steps
- Talk about what it feels like before anxiety escalates – body checks
- Teach how to recognize when a break is needed
- Check in frequently
- Give private encouragement for efforts
- Model healthy ways of handling stress or anxiety and talk about feeling good
Children can learn to recognize when their anxiety is growing as well as learning what it feels like to be calm. Adults observing can quietly suggest that a child describe what it feels like and to emphasize the feeling of a peaceful body. It helps everyone when adults remain calm and peaceful, too.
“Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.”
— Charles L. Swindoll