We all know the feeling. With deadlines looming and our to-do lists growing, we begin to feel our muscles tightening, our hearts race, and our heads spin. Anxiety has become such a huge part of our adult lives that we often forget a time when it didn’t consume us. For many of us, it has been present since childhood. So how can we help our children to combat anxiety before it becomes THEIR normal?
I am so happy to have my sister sharing this guest post today talking about parenting a child with anxiety. In the article below she shares her experiences and the things that have worked for her and her daughter. Every situation is different. I hope you find ideas and encouragement that will help.
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Understanding Anxiety in Children
In order to prevent anxiety, we must first understand what it is, what the signs of anxiety in children may be, how to address and treat anxiety, and how to talk to your child about mental health.
It is important to me that you understand that I am not any kind of medical professional. I am certainly not qualified to diagnose your child or to tell you the best way to address any emotional or psychological concerns you may have. I am simply sharing my personal experiences and some practices that have helped me to support my daughter.
Is it Stress or Anxiety?
Generally speaking, anxiety is your body’s way of responding to stress. While similar, stress and anxiety are definitely two different things.
Stress is how we feel when we’re stuck in traffic and running late for work. It’s a temporary worry that typically goes away once we are free of traffic congestion.
Anxiety, on the other hand, manifests itself differently. One might begin to feel anxious before even entering the car, anticipating the inevitable traffic of the morning commute. Along the drive, someone struggling with anxiety may begin to imagine scenarios like accidents that could occur as traffic builds up. Once stuck in traffic, the anxiety increases as the driver realizes that there is no escape until the vehicles begin moving again. And for those struggling with chronic anxiety, this happens every single day.
While stress and anxiety are both normal parts of our lives, and can actually be helpful in protecting us from dangers and even bad decisions, anxiety that is left untreated can quickly become detrimental. Those suffering from anxiety will often find even the simplest task daunting. More complex and stressful responsibilities may be avoided altogether.
If you suffer from anxiety, you already know how impactful it can be in your life. I have personally struggled with anxiety as far back as I can remember. As an adult, I recognize just how much it has affected my entire life. As a mother whose child has both high-functioning autism and anxiety, it has become so important to me to try to teach my daughter how to manage stress and anxiety before it becomes her normal too.
While I recognize that no two people or circumstances are the same, I also know that sometimes a little knowledge and a few resources can make all of the difference. But first, you need to understand how anxiety presents itself.
What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children?
Anxiety can present itself in many different ways. Some of the most common for children are:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry or agitated behavior
- Crying or poor emotion management
- Lack of focus
- Avoidance of activities or certain environments
- Head or tummy aches
For my daughter this list also includes things like picking at her skin and lips, seeking constant physical touch, excessive talking, and even having imaginary friends during stressful times.
If you are concerned that your child’s behavior may be caused by anxiety, it might be helpful to keep a journal or list on your phone to document what is occurring during the times you see these behaviors. This can help you to pinpoint stressors for your child so that you can come up with a plan to help them manage their anxiety.
Remember also that these behaviors might look different in pre-teens and teens as their stressors are more complex. You may find them becoming easily angered, emotional, or reclusive. And while some of this is typical teen mood changes and hormones, it is a good idea to monitor long term or extreme changes in their mood or behavior. Your child’s pediatrician is a wonderful resource who can provide additional guidance and monitoring if needed.
How Can I Help My Child?
Anxiety is complicated and can look completely different from person to person and even day-to-day. This can make it difficult to know how to address it.
If you suspect your child is struggling with anxiety, your first step is to take a deep breath. Many parents feel like they’ve done something wrong if their child is struggling. The truth is that anyone can experience anxiety and the fact that you are tuned in enough to recognize that your child needs your help means that you are doing a great job.
If possible, try to identify the scenarios or events that trigger your child’s anxiety. This may be very specific or very broad. For example, they might be afraid of dogs and are therefore fearful of walking down the street where they may encounter them. That is a very specific trigger. However, if they seem generally anxious, with no identifiable source, it might be more difficult to pinpoint the cause. Overall, how you address anxiety in children remains the same.
Self-regulation and emotion management are the keys to success here. Avoiding stressors only serves to put a band-aid on the situation. We want to teach our kids coping skills that they can utilize throughout their lives and into adulthood. Certainly, extreme circumstances may require that the stressor be avoided or removed.
Tools for the Anxious Child
My daughter has a lot of anxiety at night. For me, having her sleep in my bed is not an option and doesn’t serve her long term. So, some of the tools I use to help my daughter manage her anxiety at night are:
- Music – she has a CD player in her room that plays soft instrumental music. This has helped her as we live on a busy street and the various noises going on outside can cause her to feel nervous.
- Lavender – we recently got a lavender pillow spray that she loves. Lavender is known for its relaxing properties and is widely used as a sleep aid in fragrance diffusers, sprays, and even roll-ons that are applied directly to the skin. We have a roll-on that she can use in the morning before school if she feels particularly anxious in the morning. In the evening, a couple of squirts on her pillow (I spray her pillow underneath her pillowcase to avoid any skin irritation) and she snuggles right in.
- Weighted Blanket – weighted blankets are a great way to help a child feel more snug and secure in their bed. I made one for my daughter a few years ago (I definitely suggest buying one if you can unless you enjoy sewing a LOT and having poly beads around your home for eternity).
I based the amount of weight of her blanket on a general recommendation of 10% of body weight + 1 pound. I believe her blanket weighs about 9lbs. However, she prefers much more pressure on her to relax and likes for me to roll it up and lay the entire thing across her shoulders. She does NOT like it across her legs.
- Night Light – My daughter is deathly afraid of the dark and so she has a night light in her room. If you plan to use a night light for your child, be sure to choose one that isn’t too bright or that is adjustable. Also, be mindful of the COLOR of the light that your night light produces. Blue light has been documented to keep our minds active and awake so you’ll want to avoid blue light for your child’s night light if you can. My daughter has a night light and alarm clock combo we got at Target. Unfortunately, I don’t see it on their site anymore to link to it but there are many others like it. I like that it puts out soft light and you can choose the color (my daughter likes the pink color).
- Here is a similar Night Light
Because her anxieties aren’t limited to the evening, we have a number of ways to combat stress during our days as well. Some of these are:
- Chewing Gum – Obviously, this is a suggestion that only applies to children who are able to chew gum appropriately and safely. For my daughter, we have discovered that chewing gum while she does her homework helps to ease some of her tension. This is not something we do every day however she does always chew gum in the car. I originally thought it was just a habit but I now believe it’s because she feels anxious in the car and this helps her. (I really like her teeth so we stick to sugar-free gum)
- Chewing necklaces: might be a good alternative for your child.
- Security Blanket or Toys – I’ll be honest, I have struggled with my 11-year-old still using her baby blanket. On one hand, I feel like she is getting a bit old for it and worry she’ll be made fun of by peers if they find out. But, on the other hand, I know how attached she is to it and how she seeks it out when she feels anxious. As she is older, blankie no longer leaves the house unless she will be overnight somewhere else. But it is her most valued possession. Many children have their blankies, lovies, or toys that they use to self-soothe during times of stress or emotional discomfort.
- IEP/ 504 Plan – Due to her autism diagnosis and the accommodations she needs during her school day, my daughter has a 504 plan. She originally had an IEP but, due to her hard work and improvements, she recently went back to a 504 plan. IEPs and 504s are similar but not the same. A 504 is ideal for a student who needs accommodations but not changes to their educational content. An IEP offers the same but additionally can allow for actual changes to WHAT and HOW the student is learning.
For my daughter, her 504 is a list of accommodations and tools she needs to be able to manage her day. For example, having extra time to organize and transition between classes, quiet space to work and test if needed, and social skill-building groups.
If your child is struggling with anxiety enough that it impacts their ability to learn and function in school, they may qualify for a 504 plan. This is something that you would need to speak to your child’s pediatrician and the school about. Be sure to document specific concerns and examples when possible.
- Diet and Medication – Limiting sugar and eliminating caffeine (found in chocolate and many sodas) can naturally help to settle the nerves. Have you ever eaten a bunch of junk food and then felt jittery? I certainly have. Hydration is also really important as being dehydrated can create muscle tension and make your heart work harder.
As far as medication goes, this is a personal choice that you need to make with the guidance of your child’s pediatrician and your gut. While I personally prefer not to opt for anxiety medication for my child at this time, I would absolutely consider it if her anxiety really began to affect her quality of life.
There is a lot of controversy over this topic, and I understand why. But I also believe that most parents will make educated decisions based on their child’s best interest and that every parent has the right to make the decision that THEY think is best.
Communication and the Anxious Child
In the end, I truly believe that the most valuable tool you have to help your child manage anxiety is communication. It is vital that your child knows that they can talk to you when they have strong emotions. Mental health needs to be a conversation that we are comfortable having because failing to address it can have devastating consequences.
While my daughter and I check in with each other all of the time, it is still a learning process for both of us. I was not encouraged to share my emotions and struggles as a child and so she and I are navigating this together. But she knows she can always come to me when she needs to and that I will do my very best to hear her and to help if I can.
If you are not ready to talk with your child about mental health, or they aren’t comfortable talking with you about it yet, you could consider a shared notebook where your child can jot down thoughts about their day and you can write back, providing feedback or reassurance.
Another idea is to have a “worry jar” where your child can write down their worries in a piece of paper and stick it in the jar. You can then discuss them together or address them more discreetly. There really is no wrong way as long as your child feels heard and reassured.
Confidence and the Anxious Child
As my daughter is 11 now, I know how important having self-confidence will be for her to continue to maintain control of her anxiety. So, for Christmas this year I ordered her the Big Life Journal. I sat down with her to look over it and to explain the purpose of the book. I let her know that she could fill it out independently or that we could sit together if she preferred. She LOVES it and we are both so excited about the positive messages in it. They have journals for ages 7-10 and for ages 11+ along with a number of other great tools for teaching children mindfulness.
There are also so many good books for younger children about anxiety such as A Little SPOT of Anxiety: A story About Calming Your Worries by Diane Alber and The Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of Feelings by Anna Llenas. Both of these books do a great job of explaining emotions in a way that is easy to understand while keeping young children engaged with their wonderful characters.
In addition to journals and books, my daughter and I talk a lot about her strengths and focus on the importance of kindness and helpfulness over being the best at something. For example, she is one of the kindest and most helpful people I know. She holds the door for everyone no matter where we go (and sometimes no matter how far away from the door they are). I have seen her help store employees stock shelves and if someone drops something she will run over to pick it up for them. I know I’m biased, but she’s pretty awesome.
Still, she feels bad that she scores low in the physical fitness testing at school and that she can’t run as fast as her peers. Due to her coordination difficulties, climbing, running, and spatial awareness can be an issue.
While these things can’t be avoided, and shouldn’t be, I always remind her of all the amazing things that she CAN do. I also ask her to remember that the things that she finds natural and easy to do, can be difficulties for someone else; that everyone has their own set of abilities and gifts that they are meant to share with the world.
Keeping her confidence up, and reminding her of her CAN DOs instead of her CAN’Ts, has helped her to reduce her anxiety when she is faced with tasks that make her uncomfortable.
Below are some books for parents that have also been recommended for parents of anxious children:
Conversation, Prompts, and Questions to Use With Your Anxious Child
So how can we begin a conversation about mental health with our kids?
Well, that really depends on your child’s age, but a good place to start is by simply talking to them about their day and the feelings they experienced throughout it. If they express to you feelings of worry or being overwhelmed, you can explain to them what anxiety is and reassure them that they have your support and that it can be managed.
Especially for older children and teens, thinking that they will always feel that anxious and worried can lead to depression. They need to know that there is light at the end of that tunnel.
If your child will not open up to you, or you feel that your child needs more help working through their feelings, therapy is a wonderful option. Be sure to do your homework and “interview” potential counselors to find the right fit for your child.
Reassure them that struggling with anxiety and seeking help is normal. Mental health has been an open conversation between my daughter and I as long as I can remember. I am honest and open with her (within reason) about my own struggles and the steps I have taken to better myself. So, when it became clear that it was time for her to see a therapist to address her anxiety, she felt comfortable asking me questions about it and sharing her concerns.
I understand that not every parent will have experienced first-hand the effects of anxiety and be able to relate to that struggle in someone else. That’s ok. Your job is not always to understand, but to guide and support them.
Either way, I thought it might be helpful to share some conversation prompts and questions that you could use to open the lines of communication. Again, these can be adjusted to suit your child’s age and personality.
Download your Conversation Starters and “Draw your worry monster” printables below:
Fill out the form below and your printables will be emailed to you shortly.
About the Author, Jessica Montanez
I was born and raised in Connecticut where I currently live with my incredible daughter and our Chihuahua, Chippy. As a proud member of the autism spectrum, my daughter has taught me so much about owning who you are and celebrating your unique gifts.
Along with being a writer, I am also a photographer and the owner of J. Joy Photography, a Connecticut family photographer, where my main focus is creating unique, beautiful, and connected images of families and motherhood.
Whether it’s with words or images, I am driven by my desire to connect with people, to encourage them, empower them, and to remind them of the beauty in and around them.
I am fueled almost entirely by caffeine and would choose camping over a cruise every time!