Some children’s anxiety can be managed by simply talking about it and teaching them coping strategies. Other times it may require professional help. If your child has persistent, debilitating anxiety, or is exhibiting physical symptoms (such as trouble sleeping at night, stomachaches or elevated heart rate), talk to your doctor about it. Your doctor can also help you determine if your child has a medical condition that could be contributing to their anxiety, such as asthma or gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Children often have a difficult time telling adults what they’re worried about because they don’t know how to articulate it. And it’s easy for parents to misread a child’s anxious thoughts, which can lead to inappropriate responses. For example, saying things like “everything will be okay” or “you’re a brave girl” can actually confirm to them that they have something to fear. Instead, try asking open-ended questions that allow them to share their feelings and experiences with you.
If a child is afraid of monsters under their bed, for instance, you might ask: “What are you scared of?” or “How do you feel when you’re afraid of those monsters?” You can also encourage them to write or draw their anxious thoughts, which will give them a chance to practice naming their emotions.
Kids need to learn that they can survive situations that make them nervous, and it’s important for parents to help them do this, says Gilboa. However, some parents get too ready to accommodate their children, and that can backfire. For example, if a child won’t go swimming because they’re afraid of water or avoids sleepovers because they’re scared of the dark, that limits their opportunities to build confidence and teaches them not to trust other people.
To help your child understand their own anxiety, try reading books together. One option is ‘Hey Warrior,’ which explains what anxiety feels like in an engaging way for kids and teaches them how to find their ‘brave.’
Similarly, if a child is apprehensive about starting school, try getting them to spend a day away from you before the first day by giving them a gift that reminds them of you (“I got you this cute bee nightlight so you can associate the monsters under your bed with the safe feeling of being with me”).
Anxiety can affect everyone, including adults, and it’s not uncommon for parents to pick up on their kids’ anxiety and feel overwhelmed themselves. That’s why it’s important to take care of yourself, too, so you can be a good role model. It’s also important to seek support from family, friends and social services if you need it. And, if you’re a parent of an anxious child, consider seeking support for yourself from your community or faith group.