Anxiety is a very challenging issue that can impact our children. Typically, it takes the form of unexplained fears or wild meltdowns. It can be hard to help children with anxiety because it might be hard to recognize as a deeper issue. We get frustrated or exasperated when they aren’t listening—especially if we aren’t sure what to do. Managing anxiety for your child can feel like a weighty responsibility.
You are not alone. And you are already a great parent just for being here and looking for solutions to support your child’s mental health. I want to help you understand and navigate anxiety issues for your child.
What are Symptoms of Anxiety in Kids?
Unlike adults, young children, tend to be much more unbridled when it comes to expressing themselves. It means your child might have a meltdown in the middle of dinner. It might mean they start balking at the idea of school or crying for unknown reasons while walking through the mall. You feel frustrated and try to reason, but that only makes it worse.
A child’s meltdown may be caused by external circumstances:
- Too much sugar
- Too much screen time
But when the easy answers aren’t solving the extreme reactions, they may be caused by anxiety.
Meltdowns in older children are more likely to be triggered by anxiety. According to research published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the median age of anxiety onset is 11 years.
Most parents try to talk their children out of their feelings in order to help them follow rational thought patterns and stop negative thoughts. But, when anxiety is involved, that doesn’t work. In fact, trying to reason with your child in the middle of an anxiety attack will likely make it worse. What can you do?
What Causes a Child’s Anxiety?
Ongoing anxiety isn’t a widespread issue for young children. Most of the time, they don’t face the same pressure as adults, so they are less likely to experience the strain that leads to anxiety. However, it isn’t a rare childhood issue either.
More than 7% of children ages 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The numbers have been going up too, with only 5.5% diagnosed with anxiety as reported in 2007.
That’s over 4 million kids dealing with diagnosed anxiety now. And, that’s only counting the ones that have actually been diagnosed! It’s possible children are dealing with more anxiety, but it’s also very possible parents are just noticing it and giving it a name.
Environmental factors are often a key contributor, but not always. This could include:
- Physical or mental abuse
- Stressful home situation
- COVID-19 stressors
- Neighborhood violence
- School pressure
- Divorce or death
Genetics are responsible for roughly half of the risk. Women are more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men, though it often goes undertreated and underdiagnosed. Check out the article Is Anxiety Genetic Or Learned to find out more and tips on how to start healing from it.
Signs of Anxiety in Your Child
So, what exactly is anxiety? How do you know if your child is struggling with anxiety?
Everyone has fears and concerns. Anxiety takes on an unusual form, plaguing you with unfounded fears and extreme worries. When a child hits a certain developmental stage (right around 18-20 months), they typically start to experience irrational fears. They are just starting to understand how the world works. A two-year-old child realizes that vacuum cleaners suck up dirt (and sometimes socks), so they are terrified of what could happen if the vacuum hits their own feet. Usually, loud noises (like fireworks) and unfamiliar experiences (like a dog or horse) can trigger a child’s fears and anxious feelings.
Those are all very normal fears during that stage. As parents, we patiently help them navigate those fears by telling them over and over it’s okay and showing them we aren’t afraid. Eventually, most children move past those fears as they get a better grasp for how the world works.
But sometimes childhood anxiety continues on. A fear of the dark is an example of a very common irrational fear that many children (and even adults!) experience. Sometimes a phobia or trigger is clear. Sometimes we can’t put a finger on what is causing us to behave irrationally or feel anxious. And, if we struggle to understand our motivations as adults, imagine how much harder it is for our kids!
You might notice an anxious child:
- Clings to a parent (separation anxiety)
- Cries a lot for reasons you can’t identify
- Refuses to talk or shuts down
- Misses school days or social events
- Experiences frequent stomach aches
- Refuses to answer questions that have a right/wrong answer
- Avoids trying challenging things
- Experiences a racing heart
- May feel shaky or jittery
- Might feel butterflies or nausea
- Gets a dry mouth or clammy hands
- Panic attacks
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviors
When Should I Worry About My Child’s Anxiety?
Since we all face those irrational fears, we shouldn’t jump the gun on seeking outside help. It’s okay to let your child naturally work through some of these issues. Being patient and pursuing natural healing is often the best course of action. However, there are at least three points when you should get professional help for your child’s anxiety.
When Anxiety Doesn’t Fade
Most anxiety will last just a few days to a few weeks. As your child gets older, unusual phobias and feelings of anxiety should be something they can work through. We can’t often control the random thoughts that pop into our brain, but we should have the ability to shoo them back out.
Martin Luther once described problematic thought as birds. He said, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”
That doesn’t mean we should take our child’s anxiety less seriously or dismiss it, but it does mean you don’t have to rush to see someone for anxiety unless it persists. Some of my healing methods below may help with anxiety before you need to seek out additional help. They will help even if you do seek out help from a doctor or therapist since they can support many other therapies and even medications.
When Anxiety Becomes Debilitating
If anxiety is affecting your child’s ability to function, it may be time to get more extreme help. Being afraid to take a bath or nervous to perform at school isn’t unusual behavior for children. But refusing to get out of bed or shutting down due to a specific phobia is a more serious sign that their feelings is beyond what they can manage at this age. Not wanting to do fun things, like birthday parties or sleepovers could be a sign of social anxiety.
If anxiety is impacting life, then it is time to seek out help. You might start with a therapist to see if you can work through anxiety without medication. Sometimes talk therapy and learning coping skills are all it takes for your child to master the anxiety.
While medication can sometimes be necessary, I prefer to try more natural methods first to ensure it is necessary before turning to it. I know you want what is best for your child. Sometimes that is a medication prescribed by a pediatrician or therapist, but sometimes it doesn’t have to include that. Medication can be a lifesaver for some and it can be difficult to find the correct dosing or medication with few side effects for others. If your child is anxious to the point of self-harm, all of that flies out the window until you can get things back to a more solid place.
When Anxiety-Inducing Trauma Occurs
If something happens that understandably results in anxiety, you should seek help as soon as possible. A child being attacked or losing a parent are examples of anxiety-inducing traumatic situations. If you know your child suffered abuse of any kind, you should seek out professional help. Again, start with a therapist that is skilled with children and working through those anxious thoughts. It will be so helpful to your child to act now before they try to bottle it up on their own. Traumatic experiences are not something children are able to work through alone and it will come out later if it isn’t worked through in a healthy way now.
My natural healing techniques, support and management methods will be helpful no matter where you are at in this process. These natural approaches to anxiety can come alongside any additional professional help you may choose to seek out.
Natural Healing Techniques to Help Anxious Kids
When our brains are flooded, they go into overload. Your child’s anxiety may result in meltdowns or shutdowns. When this happens, it’s important to help your child reset.
You can use the eye movement technique to help your child increase the communication between both sides of their brain and break the mental state of emotion. This allows them space to work through the situation with more rational thinking.
- Ask your child to watch your finger
- Move it back and forth
- Start to move your finger faster and faster until the child can’t keep up with the movement anymore
- You will likely notice your child’s eyes flutter and the emotions shift
If they go back to the emotion after you finish, do it again! You can also ask them to take slow, deep breaths after you are done to help increase the melatonin produced in their brain, which naturally reduces feelings of stress.
Once the emotional state is broken, you’ve shifted the energy and you can speak reason.
Next, flush out that emotion physically to get the meridian running.
- Take two fingers and start at the back of their neck
- Run the fingers down their spine very quickly
- Do this six or seven times, flushing for relief
Both of these techniques will help break the emotional overload. Use them together for those meltdowns, helping them get outside of the emotion and take small steps toward reason. By not giving in to their meltdown, you are gently teaching them that this method of behavior doesn’t work to their benefit. By using these techniques, you help them physically get back into control when their brains are simply flooded with emotion.
How to Best Support Your Child’s Anxiety Attacks
Don’t tell your child their anxiety is irrational. Instead, validate their feelings once they’ve calmed down. If your child is throwing a normal fit in a meltdown, you can say things like:
I know you feel frustrated. This won’t get you what you want.
It’s okay to feel sad, but you cannot scream/hit.
If your child is having an anxiety meltdown, it is much the same. Keep it short and simple, but help them identify what they are feeling and let them know they are heard.
I know you are uncomfortable right now.
I know this is scary and you don’t like this.
It’s okay to feel afraid. I’m right here.
Help your child feel heard and work through those fears by being patient, modeling your own sense of calm. Your child will tend to naturally mirror your own emotions. If your emotions are running high with your own nervous feelings of concern or frustration, then they will struggle more to regain control. Your calm approach isn’t always the smoking gun solution, but it is a very good place to start.
Parents have to encourage young people to face their fears for social situations, performance and specific phobias. We all have fears and they are very real to us. If you are afraid of the dark or afraid of bees/spiders/snakes, then you should understand how that fear feels. It might be irrational to be terrified of a small insect or lack of light, but those feelings are still very real. Do not add extra weight to their fear or turn it into part of their identity.
Manage Anxiety Symptoms Naturally
Approaching life with a focus on health is a key part of working through many of our mental and physical issues. There are a number of healthy, natural behaviors we should all strive for with our children.
Eat Nutritional Foods: Avoid the junk and focus on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, lean protein and seeds. The preservatives, salt and sugar found in so many of our foods impact our body chemistry and do a lot of harm.
Pursue Activities: It’s especially good if you can get outside. Try to get your child moving (preferably outside) for at least 60 minutes each day. Reduce screen time (where their brain is inundated with information) and focus on activities, like drawing or reading, instead.
Schedule in Sleep: You might not be able to control when your child actually falls asleep, but a good bedtime routine with plenty of time for solid sleep is extremely important. Children need more than eight hours of sleep each day (preferably 10-12).
Practice mindfulness: Yoga and meditation are amazing practices for everyone—even kids. Help your kids focus on calming routines that include some movement and deep breathing. Helping them focus on the hear and now will have a big impact on their anxiety levels.
At the end of the day, you cannot control how your child processes their emotions or anxious feelings. It can be scary and frustrating as a parent to help your child through these emotions. Make sure you are taking care of your own mental health as well. Take breaks and get support to stay strong for your child. You won’t be able to help if you are drained and spread thin yourself.
Check out my book The Child Whisperer for more helpful tips on working with your child.