Children with anxiety often feel overwhelmed and have a hard time expressing what they’re feeling. But when kids learn to recognize anxiety and use techniques to calm themselves, they can take control of their emotions.
Anxiety is the body’s response to fear or threat. It’s a natural, normal process that helps us prepare for dangerous situations by increasing blood flow to the brain and heart, preparing muscles to react quickly, and releasing hormones like adrenaline. But for children with anxiety, these physical reactions can become overwhelming and prevent a child from engaging in daily activities or socializing.
It’s important for parents and caregivers to understand that anxiety is a real and treatable condition. If you think your child has anxiety, it’s a good idea to talk with your pediatrician and ask for a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in treating children.
In general, the most effective treatment for anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. During CBT, your child will learn skills and techniques to replace negative thinking patterns with positive ones and practice behaviors that help reduce their anxiety. They’ll also get “homework” to practice these skills and behaviors on their own, both in and out of therapy sessions.
For children with severe or persistent anxiety, medication can be an option. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are the medications of choice for childhood anxiety disorders. But other drugs, including benzodiazepines, can also be used for short periods. It’s best to use these medications in conjunction with CBT, if needed.
Children who have anxiety can also benefit from other types of psychotherapy, such as dialectical behavioral therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). In these therapies, your child will learn to accept uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, rather than fight them. They’ll also practice coping skills, such as describing their anxiety as a wave that builds up, peaks and then ebbs.
In addition to talking with a therapist, it’s helpful to connect your child with things they can see, touch and smell in order to help them feel more grounded. You can also try breathing exercises with your child, such as taking 3 deep breaths, in for a count of 3, out for a count of 3. If you have trouble finding the right therapist, an online directory can filter providers by insurance, location, demographics and specialties.