Anxiety is a normal part of development, but when it gets out of control and interferes with kids’ ability to function, it’s time for treatment. A pediatrician or mental health professional can help.
Many parents struggle to recognize their child’s anxiety as a real problem and may believe their kids’ behavior is typical, since they too grew up afraid of spiders or worried about school tests. In fact, children with serious anxiety often develop a pattern of avoidance that can lead to trouble at home and in their social life. They might refuse to go to the pool or stay at a friend’s house, have nightmares about their upcoming dentist or doctor visits, throw tantrums when they are picked up from school or spend most of Sundays in bed because they are fearful of going to school.
Kids with serious anxiety often have difficulty concentrating in class and do poorly on school assessments. They may also be more prone to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and digestive problems. These can be signs of underlying conditions such as depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or even a medical condition like asthma.
The first step is to get a thorough evaluation by a health care provider, such as your child’s primary care physician or a mental health specialist. Sometimes anxiety can be caused by other disorders, so it’s important to get a complete picture of your child’s health.
It’s also important not to encourage your children to be fearful of things that are normal, such as the school cafeteria or a classroom full of students. Instead, reframe the conversation so they feel empowered to overcome their fears. For example, rather than saying, “Don’t worry, it won’t be so bad,” which can reinforce their anxiety, say, “How do you think you’re going to manage the situation?”
Some tools are easy for parents to use. Others are more complex and require the guidance of a trained therapist, such as a licensed clinical social worker or psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders. A therapist can teach your child cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy that has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, and help them learn ways to recognize negative thoughts and behaviors and replace them with more positive ones. They will probably also give your child practice exercises and homework to do outside of their therapy sessions to build skills they can use for the rest of their lives.
In addition to CBT, some kids with severe anxiety might need anti-anxiety medication, which can help reduce the symptoms. However, no clinician wants to put a kid on medications without carefully evaluating them. It’s also a good idea for parents to look at their own anxiety and behaviors to see whether they might be contributing to their children’s issues. Kids are more likely to imitate their parents’ anxious reactions, such as screaming at a bug or getting nervous during public speaking, than their healthy peers.