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Anxiety in Childhood

All children experience some form of anxiety; this is to be expected and can be a response to something positive or negative happening in a child’s life. Feeling anxious can be associated with changes in routines, family dynamics, new experiences or exposure to a traumatic event. Any indication of a child experiencing anxiety requires a supportive and empathetic response to help them manage worries and learn a variety of coping skills.

Working Through Anxiety Together

It is important to identify your child’s feelings and responses to a variety of situations.  Work together with your child to practice new skills when they are calm and during general routines so that they can use those skills when feeling anxious.

  • Watch and learn how your child reacts under stress. Their reaction will tell you what they need.
  • Help your child recognize and label emotions in themselves and others. 
  • Provide space and an opportunity for your child to express emotions without shame.
  • Offer comfort and reassurance quickly when your child is showing anxiousness. Let them know you are there for them and stay close to offer comfort if they choose.
  • Understand your own response to stressful situations. What strategies are you modeling?
  • Find ways to regulate your own emotions to avoid inconsistent responses to situations.
  • It’s important to include family and cultural practices throughout the day, ones that will help your child find a way to ground themselves within their identity.
  • Visit new settings in advance to introduce your child to an upcoming change (e.g., if your child is starting school or a new child care program, visit the physical setting, talk about the changes in advance and on multiple occasions).
  • Warmly welcome and say goodbye to your child when coming or going. Make eye contact, smile and reassure them.
  • Provide engaging, interesting and challenging activities for your child to shift their attention to when feeling anxious.  Ask yourself, “What do they like to do?”
  • Offer a favourite toy or activity to help comfort your child when they are anxious. Spend some time with them at that activity.
  • Slow down and allow flexibility in your routine.  When possible, let your child lead the routine and allow time to complete tasks. If your child is upset, slow the routine down to give them extra time to regulate their feelings. Model calming techniques, such as taking deep breaths, thinking of a quiet place, counting to ten. Practice these activities with your child during calm periods.
  • Prepare your child for transitions using visuals, such as pictures or verbal reminders to give them time to prepare (e.g., “In five minutes we are going to tidy up and get ready to go outside”).
  • Prepare your child before any upcoming changes. You can use tools such as calendars, books or personalized stories to help them understand the change.
  • Use a visual schedule, showing pictures of the daily routine and step-by-step mini-schedules for parts of the day that are more stressful. This will increase predictability of the routine and help your child understand what is happening next.  Model using the visual schedule and make it a fun experience with your child, let them point out what is happening next.
  • Use a visual timeline, such as a calendar to count down the days until the start of an upcoming change.

Additional Tips for School-aged Children

  • Talk about what is happening, plan and brainstorm solutions together.  Be sure to practice this plan during moments of calmness and revisit later, after a stressful situation, to adjust the plan as needed.  
  • Help your child adapt to stressful situations through short exposure and practice. Completely avoiding triggers of anxiety does not allow your child the opportunity to build a toolbox of coping strategies.  With practice, your child can learn to work through their fears and worries.
  • Help your child ‘reframe’ their anxious thoughts. Here is a script that can help:
    • “Name a worry floating around in your mind right now.”
    • “What is the worry telling you?”  What is a fact about this worry? 
    • “Let’s break it down and tell me more about how you feel.” 
    • “How can we take that worry and change it to a positive thought?”
  • Help your child list strategies to use in a moment of anxiety.  Write them down or use pictures to represent the strategies. Here are some examples:
  • deep breathing
  • progressive muscle relaxation – tense a group of muscles and then relax them, moving up from the toes to the top of the body
  • squeeze a stress ball
  • journal ways to identify worries and reframe thoughts
  • talk about worries with a trusted adult

Remember…

Children, like adults, need time to adjust to new people, situations and experiences. Thoughtful and supportive responses on the part of the adults in a child’s life can help them learn how to approach fears and manage their anxiety.

Helping your child respond positively to new and potentially stressful situations supports healthy emotional development. All children are unique and have different ways of managing. What is tolerable to other children may not be for your child. It’s important to understand the cause of the anxiety and the ways to support them. Caregivers, family members and early learning educators share a role in making children feel safe and secure.

If your child has a sudden change in behaviour such as limited appetite, disruptive sleep patterns or is no longer interested in favourite activities, contact your child’s family doctor for additional resources and support.


References

Beidel, D. C., & Turner, S.M. (2005). Childhood anxiety disorders: A guide and treatment. New York: Routledge.

Cooper, H. (2020, March 05). Helping Children and Teens Cope with Anxiety About COVID-19. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://pulse.seattlechildrens.org/helping-children-and-teens-cope-with-anxiety-covid-19/

Dym Bartlett, J., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. (2020, March 19). Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic

Hurley, K. (2018). Helping Kids with Anxiety: Strategies to Help Anxious Children. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.psycom.net/help-kids-with-anxiety

Illinois Early Learning Project, (2005).  Please don’t go: Separation Anxiety and Children. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://illinoisearlylearning.org/tipsheets/sepanxiety/

Mount Pleasant Family Centre Society. (2020, April 22). Early Childhood Development  in a Time of Pandemic. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://www.mpfamilycentre.ca/item/264-early-childhood-development-in-a-time-of-pandemic

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