Updated: Apr 13
According to the Child Mind Institute, 30% of children and adolescents will experience anxiety in their lifetime. That is 9 kiddos in the average classroom of 30 students! The institute also cites, "untreated anxiety disorders are linked to depression, school failure, and a two-fold increased risk for substance use disorder."
Well that's rather scary for us caretakers as well...how do you help an anxious child cope?
When I was a second grader, I never had a single session of recess. Little did the adults in my life know, my lack of task completion in class was due to anxiety. A sensitive and timid child, I was already very self-critical. I can’t blame my parents for this because they were incredibly supportive and praised me generously. But for whatever reason, my melancholy personality was already playing the comparison game at age seven.
The unease this created caused me to avoid working: I'd go to the bathroom, go to the nurse, sharpen my pencil, get a drink… anything to avoid actually sitting down and working. I’ll share more about this at the end of the post.
Let me add here that anxiety followed me into adulthood and nearly sabotaged my career as a teacher. Gratefully, my Mother and other helpful people recognized I was developing some problematic habits and stepped in to help me.
Educators and parents--all adults, really-- need to understand that there’s more than meets the eye with most child behavior. While not every child is anxious, they do experience emotions that they do not yet know how to regulate. Emoting could come in the form of anger, crying, fears, or attention seeking. When a child is acting out, there’s often an emotional reason. Based on the stats stated earlier, there is a good chance that outburst is driven by fear, or all-out panic.
So what can a caring adult do to help a child that they suspect has anxiety?
Understand what anxiety is -- and is not.
Anxiety is a biological reaction and a learned behavior pattern driven by an outside stressor and continual brooding thoughts. It can also be a reaction to a past event that manifests as a delayed reaction of sorts.
Anxiety is hardwired into people and animals to give the energy to avoid a life-threatening situation. Think of a barking dog or a skittish rabbit--they fight, flee, or freeze when they feel threatened. People do this as well, but it is less socially acceptable.
When our perceptions- real or imagined- make this natural fail-safe misfire and go bonkers, there often is no real danger...only a looming dread we anticipate. It may or may not be an actual, significant problem. For us adults, it could be running late, being stuck in traffic, or a supervisor's email we didn't anticipate. For children, it is anytime their world seems overwhelming. For a kid with few choices in life, their sense of helplessness can be often.
Anxiety is not an abnormal problem. Every human being feels anxiety if they are normal. I repeat: anxiety is normal! It is our reaction to it that can sometimes become abnormal.
When we as adults normalize all emotions, we remove their scariness from our children. Mr. Rogers of Public Broadcasting was famous for this. He talked about dozens of life experiences that a child might not have dealt with--and talked about how they made him or others feel. As mentors, that’s what we need to do, too.
Anxiety is not a monster. It is a space and time where we have heightened emotions and negative thoughts. And that’s really all it is.
Learn about and teach your children the mind-body connection.
Because anxiety is biologically driven, it is important to help children understand their bodies and the reactions to stress.
We can talk to children in age-appropriate ways about what makes them happy or sad... or scared or mad. It should be an ongoing conversation that happens regularly, even daily. It’s when children feel they have no one to talk to you about their struggles that they are compounded. Think about how you feel as an adult when you are about to erupt with emotion--except your brain and life experiences are much more developed than your toddler's or even teen's neurology.
When we see a kid who is distraught, we can point out what they are exhibiting physically as a way for them to learn their own anxiety cues:
“ You are very loud right now, so I’m wondering if you’re feeling…”
“ I see you’re crying right now. You can tell me about it.”
“Your face is doing this (model expression). What are you thinking about?”
Breathing and exercise, every day.
Once we identify that the child is having an anxious episode, we can teach them how to calm themselves. There are healthy and unhealthy ways people do this, adult and child alike. Two of the healthiest ways for people to release anxiety is vigorous large motor exercise and deep breathing.
In a safe place, take your little friend on a walk or run in the park. You can also play an energetic sport, use a stress ball, playdough, or a firm pillow. Even popping bubble wrap can be helpful to reduce tension because it is rhythmic.
Coach him or her to breathe in, hold their breath, and slowly exhale for a certain number of seconds. Show them how to breathe from their abdomen instead of their chest by placing a hand on both while they recline in a comfortable position.
Stay with them if it reassures them (teens usually don't want surveillance) while they are calming and soothing their bodies, and talk to them about it afterwards. According to Dr. Fred Jones, it takes 25 minutes or so for stress hormones to exit the bloodstream. Be patient. Once a child is in a state of calm, they will be better able to receive your guidance.
Monitor and gently challenge self-talk in your child and in yourself.
Adults who are anxious will often have children who are anxious, though they may express it differently.
Being an anxious adult is not an indictment, but it is a reminder that we must take care of ourselves so we can take care of our children. If you are anxious and worried, be careful to bring those feelings to a supportive peer -- not your child. Your child does not have the capacity to shoulder adult burdens. Sadly, they often internalize the emotions of those around them.
Be careful how you speak about yourself and to yourself, especially in the presence of your children. Fill them full of true, hopeful, grateful ideas. Even if you don’t always feel that way, it is important to speak positively in front of your children, so that they develop positive thought patterns.
This is not to say that you should deny real problems, but even how you address those problems can be said in a positive tone. Be aware of the labels that they may be putting on themselves, hearing from their peers or others in their environment, or even from the media.
Social media tycoons have admitted that the self-talk created in teenagers by social media has led to self harm and depression. Words and images truly influence, so be aware of the messages your children are being exposed to, and do your best to curtail the negative.
Teach children how to articulate their emotions, and how to look for solutions.
Most children, especially young ones, do not have the language to explain what is happening to them inside. It’s important to teach them basic emotions as well as more subtle ones:
Are they happy, joyful, calm, or content?
Are they sad, lonely, disappointed, or embarrassed?
Are they angry, humiliated, threatened, annoyed, or enraged?
Are they afraid, nervous, terrified, or worried?
Nuances of emotion is something your child needs to be taught. You can do this by explaining the expressions on peoples faces nearby, on TV, or in books you read together. Think aloud about how that person might feel based on their expression and behavior. You can also state how you are feeling in matter-of-fact terms, as long as you are not overly distressed. This may scare your child, so compose yourself before discussing your own feelings with them.
Although tiny children will not be able to write much, older students can express themselves on paper, even a drawing. Often this gives a productive diversion and diffuses stress, while creating a product that can be discussed with a trusted adult.
Once your child is able to label their feelings, it is time to deal with them!
You can ask your child a series of questions to draw out the reason for their feelings. Sometimes they won’t know for sure what they feel. They may have a vague sense of the situation. Still, the actual emotion may have been triggered by something that happened earlier; even days or weeks before:
Who was with you when you started feeling badly?
What were you doing, and what were you thinking about it?
When was this and where were you? Did you like it or not?
When you did/said _____, what was going on in your heart?
How did _____ feel to you? (an emotion wheel or list like this one may help).
Some generalized anxiety or frequent moodiness may be the result of a traumatized or abused boy or girl. They may feel anxious most of the time for no apparent reason. If this is the case with your child, they may not believe they can talk about what happened to them. It may be difficult to express or connect an emotion to a specific situation, as that experience could be blocked out of their conscious mind to cope.
If an event was physical or sexual in nature, it is probably particularly jarring or invasive. For example, I am a childhood cardiac surgical patient. That kind of loss of bodily autonomy was in my best interest (life saving), but also very painful physically and psychologically.
In serious cases, trust a professional with your concerns in addition to these tips. They will be better equipped to get to the bottom of what happened, and help you find recovery for your kids. Here are a few resources for trauma and abuse:
Let’s assume that your child’s anxiety episode is not caused by an incident of abuse. Once you know the reason that they feel anxious, you can help them generate possible solutions. I suggest five or more ideas. Ask your child to evaluate the options, and which they feel the most comfortable trying. Then help them to respond with action. Here is an example:
Problem: I feel nervous about going to a friend's house for the night.
Visit the friend's house in advance for a short time.
Talk to the host family about ways to feel more comfortable: privacy, a familiar buddy, knowing the agenda for the party.
Bring a comfort item.
Write about feelings in a journal when they feel stressed.
Have a way to call home.
Visit the party but don’t spend the night.
Have a reward or look forward to after the event.
Our children need to know that 99% of problems are not going to hurt them. When they see that they can consider solutions, they will be more apt to do this by themselves. As they gain traction with the "solutions" habit in their automatic thoughts, they will calm their spiraling emotions. It may take several dozen practices with an adult for them to internalize the process, but it will be time very well spent in their development to adulthood.
Okay… back to my second grade no-recess life....
Why didn’t I do my work during class? As I look back, it was because the girl sitting next to me had such beautiful handwriting, and I as a lefty did not.
I never thought to explain this to a teacher or parent. I just made myself bad in my own mind. It seems silly now, but those emotions come back to me decades later just remembering it.
When all the students left for recess, I did my classwork very quickly. Had a trusted adult asked me why I was not doing my work, I think I would have told them. I definitely would have tried, given the right tools. I’m pretty sure my teacher never told my parents about this, and my teacher never asked me. Perhaps she just didn’t have time?
Let’s take the time.
Let's listen to our kids and get behind their eyes and heart. Let's strive to see life as they do. And then, let’s help them see life as it actually is: full of goodness and solutions.