Addressing Anxiety in Children

By Lavinia Ball-Marian, MA, LPC

Lavinia Ball-Marian, MA, LPC

Photo by Cristin Spielman Photography, LLC

Anxiety in children is an increasingly common concern. But what, exactly, is anxiety?

According to the Raising Children Network, “Anxiety is an inherent response to a perceived threat and normal levels of anxiety can assist people to be more focused and motivated, and to solve problems more efficiently.” Here are some facts about anxiety:

  • Anxiety is normal. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in time. It is normal for a child to be nervous when having to perform a song in front of the entire school.
  • Anxiety is not dangerous. Even if anxiety feels uncomfortable in the body and mind, it is temporary and non-lethal.
  • Anxiety is adaptive. Anxiety helps us prepare for dangerous situations. When we experience anxiety, it triggers our “fight-flight-freeze” response, and prepares the body to react.

However, high or continuous levels of anxiety – if not addressed – can become debilitating and impair normal, healthy functioning.

Why do children become anxious?

Anxiety in children can be caused by many factors. In this day and age more and more children are anxious about school. They may be worried about performance in school, testing, friendships, eating in the cafeteria, body image, music class or anything else. Many children are anxious to come to school because they feel like “everybody” makes fun of them, or it is hard for them to make friends, or they are not as good in math, or they don’t run as fast in PE.

Any stressful experience children go through can be anxiety-provoking and can cause them to want not to participate, to withdraw, and not to enjoy what other children around them do.

Anxiety symptoms

When the anxiety level increases, the mind and body and experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that can be frightening and disorienting. As adults, we talk about feeling anxious; children, however, may not have a name for these feelings and anxiety may be expressed quite differently. Symptoms of anxiety in children include:

  • Increased clinginess with parents
  • Increased intensity or duration of tantrums
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Sudden shyness
  • Negativity and inability to receive compliments
  • Withdrawal from friends and family,
  • Avoidance of particular situations, people and places.

Addressing anxiety

What can you do if you notice these symptoms in your child? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Talk about anxiety with your child and encourage him to discuss his anxious thoughts and feelings whenever he feels them.
  2. Educate your child on the role that anxiety plays in her life and how anxiety is necessary for survival. Describe the physical sensations she may experience when anxious: rapid heartbeat, sweaty hands, blood to extremities, butterflies in the stomach, tense muscles.
  3. Help your child recognize when he becomes anxious and what event/subsequent thought triggered the anxiety. (For example, the teacher picks a child to answer a question and the child becomes anxious. The anxiety trigger was being picked to answer a question; the subsequent thought was, “I don’t know the answer to the question.”) Together find ways to manage the anxiety.
  4. Give anxiety a name and empower your child to talk to it and tell it to go away. This helps your child understand that anxiety is not her, but something separate.

Reassuring children that anxiety is normal and teaching them to notice the symptoms in their bodies can help them recognize and better deal with these feelings. And talking about it openly allows you to intervene before anxious thoughts and feelings become overwhelming.