It’s normal and healthy for children to feel fear. That fear is what keeps them safe from swimming too far into the deep end or approaching a stranger. But sometimes children can be scared of objects or situations that pose no real threat — like monsters in the closet or public speaking. But those fears can stop them from trying everyday activities that they enjoy, ultimately leading to anxiety in day to day life.
“Teens and kids who are mentally unwell may stop participating in activities they used to find enjoyable,” said Karen Marker, a Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner and owner of Serenity Therapy and Wellness. “They begin to disconnect from those who have previously been important to them, and may have trouble falling asleep or begin sleeping too much.”
These feelings can manifest in a multitude of ways, but knowing what to look for and how to react is the best way to help your child deal with anxiety.
Signs of anxiety
According to the CDC, approximately 4.4 million children have been diagnosed with anxiety in the United States. Marker says that anxiety can show up in various ways for children.
“Since younger children are less able to describe their thoughts or feelings, they may describe physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches. They might also describe ‘scary’ thoughts,” she said. “Older children may describe worries about many different things or negative thoughts about self or others. Behavioral changes are also common in children with anxiety including moodiness, tantrums or excessive crying.”
Other signs of anxiety might include: behavioral changes or aggressions, temper tantrums, decreased or increased appetite, constant worrying or negative thoughts, bedwetting, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems and withdrawing from family and friends.
It’s important to not diminish or downplay your child’s anxious thoughts. Being empathetic and reassuring that what they’re feeling and expressing to you is okay, is important in making them feel secure.
Where you can begin talking about your child’s feelings and emotions
Talking with your children as young as possible is important in helping them name the emotions they’re feeling. Marker says the first five years of life are the most important for brain development, so normalizing speaking and feeling emotions is extremely beneficial.
“Since babies and young children cannot yet speak, their parents can name the emotions they may be feeling for them,” she said. “For instance if a young toddler has a toy taken from them by a friend and they begin to cry, the parent might say, ‘That must make you feel angry.’ If the child retaliates by hitting or pushing the other child, the parent might say, ‘It’s ok to feel angry, but it is not ok to hit.’ That way the child knows they are welcome to their feelings, but is also being taught emotional regulation.”
Once you’ve helped your child identify the emotion they are feeling, you can then work on helping them cope and react in a healthy way.
Resources to help your child discuss and name their feelings
There’s countless ways to help your child discuss and name what they are feeling. A great place to start is something from their everyday life. If they enjoy a particular television show or book, pick out characters from those story lines and discuss the way they react and respond to certain situations. Normalizing the emotions in a familiar character can go a long way.
Books are also an excellent resource to help children and teenagers of all ages see themselves in a character. Marker recommends ‘In My Heart: A Book of Feelings.’
The National Center for Healthy Safe Children is another great resource that offers assistance and educational materials to parents who might have questions or are struggling to help their child.
When to know if it’s time to seek professional help
Sometimes what seems like a normal childhood difficulty or hurdle can sometimes lead to something more serious. Seeking out a professionals’ opinion is perfectly okay.
“If you notice a drastic change in a pattern of behaviors that feels bothersome, or if the child’s worry or emotional outbursts greatly affect daily functioning, it’s probably time to reach out for some help,” said Marker. “The important thing to remember is that it is not going to hurt to reach out to a counselor, so if you’re feeling unsure asking for help can make a big difference.”
If you’re unsure your child is ready to speak to a licensed therapist, ask them. A simple, “Does this feel like something we need to get some help with?” can go a long way in helping your child.
Whether your child needs help navigating normal developmental challenges or is dealing with something more serious, seeking professional help can improve the quality of life for everyone in the family.
Before you go, check out some of our favorite mental health apps for adults to help give your own brain some R-and-R too:
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