Stress and anxiety is a normal part of life for many people, including children. Children, like adults can struggle with intense feelings of frustration and anxiety leading to challenges in cognition, academic performance, managing emotions, building resiliency, etc. Anxiety in can children diminishes their intellectual, emotional and social development, as well as physical health. Increased stress and anxious behavior in children can be associated with parent’s divorce, abuse, biological sensitivity, personality, stress in school, self or parent inflicted pressure, death of a loved one, significant/abrupt familial changes, rigid schedule, etc.
Anxious feelings do not exist in a vacuum, anyone can experience stressful and anxious feelings, even children who are often overlooked. As with adults, children respond differently to stress depending on their age, individual personalities, and coping skills. When it comes to anxiety in children, very young children may not be able to fully explain or understand their feelings, whereas older kids may be able to express what they are feeling and why they are feeling it. Children struggling with anxiety often struggle with low self-esteem, self-doubt, and difficulty building and establishing social relationships. Children that do not develop the skills to appropriately manage frustrations and anxiety or develop maladaptive coping skills will experience difficulty with building self-confidence. Children that develop healthy coping skills exhibit a higher rate of self-confidence, increased social and self-control skills, have better management and control of their mood, communicate their needs more effectively, perform better in school than peers struggling with decreased confidence, etc.
For many children, fear has been positively associated with anxious feelings. Fear in a small amount is a natural part of everyday life, fear is part of our survival instincts. When faced with danger, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode. This happens without thinking: Our body takes over and prepares by tensing muscles, increasing the heart rate, sharpening vision and hearing, and intensifying breathing. Bodily responses to fear allow our body to fight the threat or get away from it. Unresolved fear can lead to increased anxious feelings.
Potential Causes of Anxiety in Children Can Include:
· Parent divorce/change in family system
· Physical Injury (self or caregiver)
· Sexual or physical abuse
· Being bullied
· Loss of a parent or caregiver to death
· Abandonment by a parent or caregiver
· Witnessing a natural disaster
· Challenges or interruptions with speaking mind or asserting self
· Oversensitivity to criticism and rejection
· Self or Parent/caregiver inflicted pressure (academic performance, excel in sports, etc.)
· Difficulty relaxing
· Difficulty accepting or managing criticism
· Strong sense of responsibility
· Biological sensitivity
· Need to engage in people pleasing behaviors/acceptance
Unfortunately stress and anxiety can happen to anyone. Children, like adults can be taught how to both recognize and manage negative feelings. However, negative feelings must be identified and validated before appropriate change can occur.
Useful Tips to Help Children Manage Anxious Feeling Include:
· Recognizing/acknowledging anxious feelings
· Allowing your child to express his or feelings without minimizing the feelings
· Validation of feelings
· Offer comfort and understanding
· Help children identify and develop possible solutions to address anxious feelings
· If rules are too rigid, allow some flexibility
· Provide praise and encouragement
Typically, anxious feelings in children are accompanied by “signs” or “red flags” that may indicate your child may be struggling with increased stress and anxious feelings.
Red Flags Suggesting a Child is Struggling with Anxiety Include:
· Avoidance of school or social events
· Constant complaints of illness
· Interruptions in sleeping or eating patterns
· Difficulty managing mood, i.e., irritable, crying, etc.
· Clingy behavior
· Unsubstantiated fears
It may come as no surprise children learn a lot about how to interact with others, manage moods, communicate, etc., through a process called modeled behavior. Children often learn how to manage stressors, build resiliency, convey feelings, express needs, etc., by watching parents and caregivers. Parents and caregivers play a significant role in the identity development and formation of children. Therefore, parents and caregivers that communicate well, have healthy coping strategies, are resilient, manage feeling appropriately, etc., are more likely to model these behaviors to children.
Anxious children can benefit from play therapy, family therapy, validation of feelings, less rigid schedules, limiting a child’s access to distressing news, and changes in nutrition (reduction in caffeine, sugar, etc.).