Guest post by Michele Mannering, PhD, Psychologist 🧠 Mom 😘 Runner 🏃♀️
We are trending to be a society that is chronically anxious. It’s hard to shut our minds off and disconnect, and a constant barrage of negative news is smothering us. But what about kids, and specifically, little kids? Most kids will worry about something at some point: fear of the dark, monsters under the bed, a big rollercoaster, etc. Worrying is developmentally appropriate at all stages of childhood, and having a healthy dose of anxiety can actually be a good thing. Should we be concerned that younger kids are too worried, though?
How To Recognize Anxiety in Your Child
One of the hardest things about anxiety in young children is that it doesn’t “look” the same as it often does in adults. Little kids aren’t necessarily hiding behind adults or shying away from the crowd. Children with anxiety often manifest negative behaviors such as screaming and yelling. They can be oppositional, inconsolable and prone to tantrums. It seems strange to think of a tantrum as a manifestation of anxiety, but not so strange when you think about the fight or flight response that anxiety elicits. While some kids withdraw, others externalize more as a result of their inability to control their emotions and their limited emotional vocabulary. A child cannot describe feeling a sense of panic or fear and so instead, they may scream or become hysterical.
If you are feeling like your child may be anxious, one of the most important things to do is make sure both parents are on the same page in terms of responding to the child. Mixed messages or inconsistencies will only heighten the child’s anxiety. The goal is for parents to remain neutral in these situations when and take their own emotional responses out of it. The child is already rattled by whatever is making them anxious- don’t rattle them further with your own emotions. This forces the child to begin to focus on their own behaviors.
What To Do About It
The goal is to teach kids early on to fight their fears without doing anything drastic. Young children need things broken into smaller parts, and they also need help figuring out what exactly may be causing their worries or anxieties. Young children also often need a baby step approach, and it can be a long, tedious process. It may take weeks of driving past the pool, parking in the parking lot, going into the bathroom, sitting near the pool, and putting a toe in the water before a child will be ready to consider putting both feet in. Teaching kids to be “fear detectives” and fight their fears early on can give them tools to tackle additional worries and fears that will pop up as they get older.
Check Your Own Anxiety
Parental anxiety cannot be left out of the equation when young children are involved. It can be overwhelming for parents to try to manage tantrums and distress. Further, a parent who is already anxious themselves can have a hard time coping with the stress of having an anxious child. It’s hard not to have a sense of gloom and doom about your child when you are worried to begin with. A parent who is already anxious is prone to try quickly to “fix” the situation for their child. So while adding one more thing to the to do list seems daunting, parents need to be able to think about how their own anxieties factor in. Parents have to be encouraging and also able to put kids a little out of their comfort zone, so best if your own anxieties are in check.
Signs of Anxiety in Your Child
In order to help figure out if your child’s anxiety is beyond that of typical childhood worrying, ask yourself the following questions.
- Does it interfere with or cause difficulties for your child’s day-to-day life?
- Is your child upset/distressed by it?
- Has your child stopped doing things he/she likes?
- Has making friends been challenging for your child because of worrying?
- Is academic or athletic performance impacted by worrying?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, a conversation with your pediatrician is a great place to start. Childhood anxieties extending beyond typical worries can be a lot for parents to try to manage on their own and so outside support may be helpful. The earlier kids and their parents can learn strategies, the better equipped they will be for the stressors that adolescence and adulthood will bring.
Be consistent, but not rigid. Be empathetic, but not extreme. Be aware, but don’t involve your own anxieties. Early childhood isn’t the cakewalk it used to be.