The Anxious Child

Can you picture it? It’s time to leave for school, you’re trying to get your child dressed and out the door, but you can’t get them up and moving. Maybe they’re crying or having a “meltdown,” refusing to move from the kitchen table or speak, or getting angry and yelling at you and their siblings. Or maybe all of the above? If this sounds familiar, it’s quite likely that your child may be feeling anxious. Rest assured, your child is not the only reacting this way and they are not alone—nor are you!

What does anxiety look like in children?

An anxious child may take on several different “looks.” First, it’s important to understand that when feeling out of control, overwhelmed, or anxious, children may respond in a few different ways. Chances are you’ve heard of “flight or fight,” the response we have in high-risk or dangerous situations like car accidents. In the face of danger, our brains tell us to “fight” against the threat, or to run away—“flight.” Children may also “freeze” in response to these types of events, which may look like shutting down or literally being frozen in place.

Children may lash out, cry, or throw tantrums (fight), hide in their rooms or avoid triggering situations (flight), or completely shut down physically and emotionally (freeze).

“Okay, but my child is not in danger… she just needs to put her shoes on. So what’s the deal?” Well, it doesn’t always take a crisis to send kids (or adults, for that matter) into a state of flight, fight, or freeze. It’s not uncommon for children to be sent into one of these states simply by feeling out of control, feeling fear or anxiety about a future situation, or feeling tired and overwhelmed emotionally. The math test after lunch, the classmate who doesn’t let your child join in at recess, or the first day of basketball practice are all situations that may contribute to your child’s anxiety.

What can I do when my child is anxious?

First, remember that your child is also a human being. I’m not being facetious! Put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to remember how it felt when you were a child. Then remember that your child is living in a different time, where technology, social media, and a global pandemic make being a kid pretty tough. Children have feelings, fears, worries, and stress just like adults do. Be empathetic with your children first and foremost.

Second, help your child self-regulate. It’s important to note that you won’t be able to do this if you yourself are not able to self-regulate in that moment. If your child comes to you angry and screaming, do not meet that anger with anger or screaming of your own, no matter how tough that is. Take a moment to breathe, unclench your jaw, and remind yourself that your child’s emotional health is more important than getting to school right on time. Help your child engage in some deep breathing; taking deep breaths physiologically alters our emotional state and can help calm your child. Help your child feel safe and loved by offering a hug, a hand on the back, or rubbing their arm.

Third, approach your child with curiosity. As a child counselor, I often advise parents to get curious with their kids and their kid’s feelings. What does it mean to “be curious?” Ask questions to find out more about what your child is feeling, and then encourage them to ask what that feeling is telling them. “I can see that you’re really afraid of how that math test will go. What do you think your fear is telling you? What does it say about you if you don’t do very well on the test?” Get curious!

Last, if your child is experiencing frequent anxiety, seek out counseling and get help from a professional counselor or therapist. As a child counselor, I have worked with children who really benefit from what we call “coping skills.” Counselors can work with your child to teach them positive coping skills to help manage their anxiety.

As I mentioned in a previous post, anxiety can be our friend; it can help us discern and assess danger and clues us in on potential harm. Some anxiety in your child is not a bad thing! It’s normal for them to experience anxiety as they maneuver in this world, learn, and grow. However, sometimes our anxiety hangs around even when we are safe at home with Mom and Dad. If your child seems to be anxious more often than not, it’s time to seek some help.

For English-speaking counseling for your children or teenagers, feel free to reach out to me and schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if we’d be a good counseling fit. And follow my blog for more information on how to help your kids become emotionally healthy adults!

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