6 Ways to Deal With Childhood Anxiety

small children playing 1200
(Linda LaBonte Britt/DVIDS)

I'm a worrier. So is my son.

From finances to whether or not I remembered to close the garage door at night and everything in between, I worry. Usually, it is just a nagging thought about something small and it quickly passes. But there have been occasions where the worry was a full-on panic that consumed my every thought.

Everyone worries. It is normal to be anxious about things, like meeting a deadline, meeting new people, or giving a speech. I even worry when I write a new post -- "What will people think?" "What if someone criticizes it harshly?" And then the rational side of me takes over and I know how to deal with it.

But sometimes our worries and anxieties grow and get out of control. Then what? How do we deal with them then?

As adults, most of us can realize when our worries get out of control and take steps to help minimize them, whether it be through things like relaxation techniques or speaking with a therapist. But what about when these out of control worries and anxieties are in our children? Most kids do not know how to put a name to their feelings, let alone to their worries and anxiety. So how can we, as parents, help our kids when they experience anxiety?

Anxiety can affect any child. Some kids are born worriers (like my son) and others become anxious due to events and situations they experience in their lives. Military kids in particular face many situations that could cause anxiety - multiple moves, new schools, being the new kid, worry over a deployed parent or life with even a wounded parent. All of these things and more are stressors in a child's life that can lead to anxiety. So how can we help our kids when we see them begin to worry or become overly anxious?

While I am obviously not a doctor, the following suggestions are ones that, as a parent of a child dealing with anxiety, I have found helpful. Our son has always been a worrier, but as he has gotten older the anxiety has gotten stronger. From worrying about his dad having to deploy again, to being anxious about a test (to the point that he cannot perform on the test), he over-analyzes and worries about everything. These suggestions have come from talking with other parents of children dealing with anxiety, many articles on the topic and of course, trial and error.

1. Acknowledge their worry or fear. What might seem trivial or unimportant to an adult can be the end of the world to a child. While an adult may enjoy eating alone at lunch to have a quiet moment away from work, sitting alone in the school cafeteria can make a kid feel unliked and isolated. Things that bother our kids may not seem like a big deal to us, but by hearing and acknowledging their fears and understanding that they are things that really bother our kids or hurt their feelings, we are letting our kids know that they have been heard and that we are there for them. The worst thing we can do for an anxious child is to tell them not to worry or to "get over it."

2. Listen. As parents, it is very hard to not try to fix every problem that our children have. When my son comes to me with a problem, I have a tendency to tell him what he needs to do to fix it. Some of the times when I give my advice, I know he tunes me out and gives me a half-hearted, "Thanks, mom." Sometimes our kids do want our advice, but many times they just want to be listened to. They just need to talk about their fear or their problem so that they can attempt to work it out themselves.

3. Worst Case Scenario. While there are times when our kids just want to be heard, there are also times when they need adult guidance to walk through their fears. When a child experiences anxiety over a situation, they only see the worst possible outcome and will avoid anything that can lead to that outcome, even if the worst-case scenario is very unlikely to happen. By talking with our kids about their worry we can learn what they fear will happen. After discussing what the worst-case scenario of their fear is, then together we can make a plan for what to do if that actually does happen. By making a plan, we give our kids the skills to manage their fear and be able to handle the situation.

4. Relaxation Techniques. When anxiety comes on, the heart beats faster, breathing increases and the mind goes on full speed. One skill that has been very helpful for our son is breathing or relaxation techniques. Many people recommend yoga, but if you are like me and uncoordinated, it can be hard to learn and teach your child! There are some great yoga videos that are geared specifically for kids that can help. For our son, just simply taking deep breaths while closing his eyes for a few minutes helps him to calm his mind. Pair breathing techniques with a quiet environment and some relaxing music, and many times you can help your child work through the anxiety and help the worries subside.

5. A Soft Place to Land. All kids need a place where they feel comfortable and they know they are loved. When kids are anxious or fearful, especially about situations outside the home, having a safe place and a loving family to come home to can make a big difference. Just knowing there are people at home who love them for who they are can help them have that security that they long for even when they feel uncertain. A soft hug from Mom or Dad when they are feeling anxious or fearful gives them comfort and helps them feel safe.

6. Seek Help When Necessary. For some children, anxiety is so great that outside, professional therapy is beneficial. Trained therapists can help kids learn skills that will help them cope with their anxiety. They can also help the family understand and learn the techniques as well. For our son, this has been a great help. The therapist works with him to identify the things that make him anxious and then helps him to learn methods to cope in those situations, all while playing games together. For military families, finding therapy is easy -- a simple call to Military OneSource can link you up with free therapy sessions at a provider in your area.

There are many tools available to help kids overcome anxiety. It can be very scary for a child to deal with anxiety. It can result in physical ailments such as headaches, stomach-aches and loss of sleep, making it all the more important for our children's health, both mental and physical, to teach them skills to overcome their anxiety. These tools and techniques have worked for our family to help decrease our son's anxiety, but all kids are different and these may not work for others.

What has worked for your family?

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