By Dr. Sarita Patel, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at The Center for Children and Youth
It’s no secret that childhood anxiety has been on the rise, and many parents are concerned about missing signs or not knowing what to do. It can be helpful to know the difference between problematic and normal anxiety, as well as how to help your child manage their anxiety.
As hard as it is, it’s important to remember that anxiety is a normal part of life and that learning to tolerate unpleasant emotions is a key developmental task for school-aged children. Children do not need to be “rescued” from every situation that makes them anxious, and, in fact, doing this may prevent them from learning how to self-regulate.
Child Anxiety Checklist
However, when anxiety becomes severe, it can signal an anxiety disorder. When differentiating normal anxiety from an anxiety disorder, child psychiatrists consider a few factors:
- Is the anxiety frequent and severe, and does it seem out of proportion to the circumstances?
- Is the anxiety significantly impacting functioning, such as preventing a child from attending school or playing with peers? Keep in mind that sometimes anxiety can lead to avoidance behavior, which is sometimes mistaken for defiance.
- How distressing is the anxiety? Some children with anxiety are not identified as struggling because they can function despite feeling significant distress, and adults might not recognize that they are anxious.
How to Manage Your Child’s Anxiety
Next, let’s talk about some ways that you can help your child manage anxiety:
- Remain calm yourself. Your child will take cues from your response to their anxiety, and if you appear calm and confident, this will go a long way in calming your child.
- Do not try to avoid situations that make your child anxious, as avoidance only makes anxiety worse in the long run
- Ask your child how they are feeling and take the time to listen without judgment or interruption. Acknowledge their emotions and communicate your confidence that they can learn to manage their anxiety with support.
- Don’t try to immediately problem-solve or reassure them by telling them they should not be anxious, as this can feel invalidating for kids. As parents, we often want to jump in with solutions but more often our children just want to be heard.
- You can help your child prepare for anxiety-provoking situations by talking through what to expect and helping them develop a list of specific strategies they can use in the moment, such as deep breathing, visualization, or taking a break.