Why does it seem like childhood anxiety is everywhere? It’s Time to Help Our Kids
Call it what you like: anxiety, fear, stress; it all means the same thing: the kids aren’t alright, and mental health experts still aren’t quite sure what’s driving it — or how to solve it. Meanwhile, well-intentioned parents and teachers are dealing with kids who melt down regularly without clear guidance on how to handle it. Empathy alone is not enough.
We’ve moved from authoritative do-as-I-say parenting to “throwing rose petals in front of your child as he walks,” one father expressed recently. But parenting shifts alone can’t be blamed for the breakdown in child psyches alive and well today.
Signs of Childhood Anxiety
National data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that there was a 24 percent increase in the proportion of mental health emergency department visits for kids ages 5 – 11 last year. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends mental health screenings for all children ages 12 and older but it’s become standard practice to screen children younger than that
Little Kids, School-Age Kids, Teens
Signs that your child may be struggling depends upon their age. “Among little ones, parents may see an increased tearfulness about going to preschool or day care, clingy behavior or regression in milestones like potty training,” says Elizabeth Reichert, Ph.D., a pediatric and adolescent psychologist. With school-aged kids, Reichert says, you may see a resistance to going to school, oppositional behavior and complaints such as stomach aches or headaches.
“That’s going to be really tricky to navigate,” Reichert says, because parents want to believe their kids, but head and stomaches don’t cause fevers — and fever is the line for most school attendance rules.”
Teens will display withdrawn behavior, such as staying in their rooms or irritability and moodiness, Reichert says. But that’s also normal behavior for teenagers. The key is to compare the behavior of your child now to what they acted like before.
“If there’s a major change from a child’s or teen’s baseline behavior that doesn’t dissipate after a couple of weeks — that is a red flag,” Reichert says.
Be Aware of Your Own Emotions
One of the big questions surrounding the well-being of kids is what’s happening at home. Connections are being made between anxious, over-stressed kids and the parents raising them who may be passing on their own anxieties and fears. Finding the way toward living healthy, normal living is important. If anxiety and fear dominates your mind, there’s a good chance it’s dominating your child’s mind, too.
“Parents are the biggest models for their kids,” Reichert says. “If your kids see you really anxious about something, they’re going to feed off that. You need to be mindful of your own emotions so you can self-regulate and become present for your child,” she adds.
Your Kids Are Watching
“Kids are brilliant emotional detectives of their parents,” says Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids (Workman; 2020). “If you are showing your anxiety, it leaches out into interactions with your children, she adds.
Adults can seek counsel from friends, family, books, clergy and perhaps even with therapy, but children need parents to show them the way. Reichert says parents often jump very quickly into trying to “fix”their kids with immediate solutions, but that’s not actually the best first step in helping an overwhelmed child.
Figure Out a Plan With Your Child
“The first step is to listen and to create space to hear your kid’s concerns,” Reichert says. “Acknowledge what your child is feeling even if you don’t agree. Your child should feel that they’re being heard; that it is OK to feel what they are feeling, and that they have space to talk to you,” she adds.
Once you have a better sense of what’s going on, work with your child to figure out a plan: What does your child feel like he’s capable of doing? What can you do to help? Who else can help — a friend, sibling, another family member?
If, for example, your child refuses to go to school dig in. Ask, “How can we make it feel easier?” Be sure you are also communicating to your child that, ultimately, it’s their job to go to school.
By creating small opportunities for getting through difficult situations and coping with their worries, children can build the confidence and the independence they need to feel more in control and less afraid.
Self Care Matters!
Reichert says it’s essential for parents and kids to find moments for self-care. Taking even just a couple of deep breaths in the moment, taking a bathroom break, getting a drink of water or doing other things that create a brief transition for yourself, a moment to regulate your feelings, is helpful.
Think back to what worked for you before the pandemic, and try getting even a small inkling of that back. Take a few minutes a day to move your body with exercise. Sit and read a self-help book or do an activity you enjoy such as painting or sewing or bike riding. This is important for you as a parent, but it also shows your child that you have strategies to take care of yourself and you can share them with your kids.
Literally invite your children into healthy coping activities with you. Say to your school-aged child, “I’m feeling pretty stressed, and for me, going for a walk helps me clear my head. Do you want to go for a walk with me?” Parents and young kids can blow bubbles together — small kids enjoy it, and you can talk about how big breaths for bubbles helps everyone feel better.
Turning Negatives to Positives
And one more thing: The words we use and the subtle switch up you can use to change negatives to positives.
Nervousness and excitement, for instance, are both aroused emotions. But they’re very different.
In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges and the body prepares for action. But excitement is a positive emotion‚ focusing on what can go right. Nervousness is a negative emotion, focusing on what can go wrong. It’s helpful for parents to turn negatives to positives for their kids, Reichert says. After all, the way we verbalize and think about our feelings helps to construct the way we actually feel. Think ‘excited,’ not ‘nervous.’
“Children, especially younger ones, understand the world through the bubble of the family,” Gewirtz says. What we know, though, is that parents can really help their children to cope with stress by emotion coaching and nurturing them along.”
A two-step process to calm an emotional storm.
1) Validate the Emotion: “I understand you might feel worried (and then explain the emotion), i.e., because you have a big test coming up; or, because Grandma is sick …” This conveys to your child that their feelings make sense and that you understand. Do this with your child with any big emotion.
2) Provide support: Comfort, reassurance, hopefulness and possibly redirection, problem-solving and encouragement.
Source: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D. (Simon and Schuster; 1998).