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Anxiety and Kids: how to help

Anxiety and Children: how to help your children through the school year

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Do you have an anxious child? I remember being nervous about important tests or athletic tryouts. It wasn’t until COVID and lockdowns hit that I had even a small inkling of what anxiety and panic attacks can feel like.

I have a child who has struggled with depression and the occasional anxiety attack but never something to the level that a friend is experiencing with their middle schooler. This child was anxious in her younger years–I remember she couldn’t leave her mother’s side for any reason. Play therapy helped significantly guide her for a long time.

But now, the mixture of middle school and hormones has elevated this anxiety to a whole new level, to the point where she can’t stay overnight anywhere other than her home (even if her family is with her) and the first day of school was traumatic. After refusing to go to school, she eventually made it out the door because her friends were waiting but then she called multiple times for her parents to bring her home because her stomach hurt. She managed to stay the entire day but her father told us, “Day 1 done, 200 to go.” It feels like such a long journey.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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So, what can we do to help kids who struggle with anxiety? The Child Mind Institute is a tremendous learning resource. 

What are the symptoms of anxiety in children?

Anxiety has many symptoms and can look very different from child to child. Here are some common signs that a child might have an anxiety disorder: 

  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Complaining about stomachaches or other physical problems 
  • Avoiding certain situations 
  • Being clingy around parents or caregivers 
  • Trouble concentrating in class or being very fidgety 
  • Tantrums (this was very regular when this child was younger)
  • Being very self-conscious 

Children can be diagnosed with different kinds of anxiety depending on what they are most worried about.

What Are Anxiety Disorders?

There are a few different anxiety disorders that children can experience. 

Separation anxiety disorder: Children feel extremely upset when they have to be away from parents or caregivers. This anxiety goes beyond what other kids their age normally feel. 

Social anxiety disorder: Children with social anxiety disorder feel extremely self-conscious around other people. They are so afraid of being embarrassed that they avoid social situations and even speaking in class.

Selective mutism: Children with selective mutism have a hard time speaking in some situations, like at school. These kids aren’t just shy. Their anxiety is so bad that they feel frozen and are not able to speak.  

Generalized anxiety disorder: Children with generalized anxiety disorder worry about a lot of everyday things. Their worry is not caused by anything specific and it is bad enough to get in the way of daily life.  

Panic disorder: Children with panic disorder have frequent, unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks cause physical feelings that can make kids think they are dying or having a heart attack.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Children withOCD have thoughts and worries that make them very anxious. They develop rules for themselves that they feel they must follow to control the anxiety.

Specific phobia: Kids with specific phobias are very afraid of one or more specific things. This fear is of something that isn’t normally considered dangerous. 

Almost all types of anxiety are best treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that how we think and act both affect how we feel. By learning to change negative thoughts and unhealthy actions, kids can change their bad feelings.  

Helpful Resources About Anxiety

This is just a very small sampling of the tremendous resources at Child Mind Institute. A few of their other helpful articles:

Quick Guide to Anxiety in Children

Behavioral Treatment for Kids with Anxiety

What to Do (and Not DO) When Children Are Anxious

Books on anxiety for children and teens

Anxiety Relief Workbook for Kids: 40 Mindfulness, CBT, and ACT Activities to Find Peace from Anxiety and Worry

The Anxiety Toolkit for Teens: Easy and Practical CT and DT Tools to Manager Your Stress, Anxiety, Worry and Panic

Light the Fight is an award-winning parenting podcast that focuses on family relationships, mental health and giving you the tools to build, maintain, and improve family relationships. Started by Heidi Swapp who lost her son to suicide. 

Remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety but to help them learn to manage it. Most importantly, try to model healthy ways of managing anxiety.

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