Anxiety and Young Children: How To Help Them Cope

We all experience anxiety sometimes. Long ago, when resources were more scarce and we lived more dangerous lives, anxiety helped us to recognize threats like predators. Even today, it can help us in certain situations. For example, if you were feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation for work, it would encourage you to practice, which would, in turn, help you to perform better. But when anxiety isn’t managed, it can make day-to-day life less enjoyable and more difficult.

How Do I Know If My Child Has Anxiety?

Children often don’t understand their emotions, and it’s not always easy for a parent or caregiver to identify anxiety in a child, but there are a few common symptoms.

Some possible signs of anxiety in a young child include:

  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches/digestive problems
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness or jitteriness
  • Problems with concentration
  • Becoming irritable or angry quickly
  • Crying a lot
  • Being more clingy than usual
  • Constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
  • Sleep problems

How To Explain Anxiety to Young Children

If you think your child is experiencing anxiety, you can help by talking to them about what that means and how they can cope with it. GoZen!, a series of online social and emotional learning programs for families and schools, suggests 5 simple ways you can talk to your kids about anxiety:

1. Anxiety Can Be a Thought or Feeling That Makes You Uncomfortable

Explain to your child that when they have thoughts or feelings that make them feel upset, sick or jittery, it might be anxiety. Encourage them to share by asking them if they ever feel like that.

2. Your Body Sends Signals When You’re Anxious

Kids are smarter than we often give them credit for. Your child will likely understand what you mean when you say that their body sends signals that mean certain things. You could say something like, “Do you ever get a stomach ache or sweaty palms suddenly? This could be anxiety.”

3. Anxiety Won’t Hurt You

Anxiety can feel scary, especially to a child. It’s important to let your child know that anxiety won’t hurt them. They’re just experiencing their feelings, and that’s ok. Let them know that they are safe.

4. Anxious Thoughts Come and Go

Something that helps many adults deal with negative emotions is reminding themselves that they aren’t permanent. They know that thoughts and feelings come and go, but children don’t always know this. Let your child know that they won’t always feel like this and that there are things they can do to feel better.

5. Everyone Gets These Feelings Sometimes

Let your child know that everyone feels anxiety sometimes, including you! It’s important that they know that you understand and that they’re not alone in this. 

Helping Young Children To Manage Anxiety

Even though they might not understand what it is, young children can have feelings of anxiety just like adults. Autistic children in particular can sometimes experience anxiety more intensely and more often than typically developing children. If your child is struggling with anxiety, here’s how you can help them manage it.

Related: Overcoming Sensory Overwhelm in School

Helping Young Children To Recognize Anxiety Triggers

Just like adults, children have certain triggers that may lead to anxiety. While they can be different for everyone, some common anxiety triggers for children include:

  • Caffeine
  • Some cough and congestion medications
  • Skipping meals
  • Conflict at home or school
  • Public performances
  • Parties or social events
  • Worrying about family, home life or school

Make Sure Your Child Feels Heard

Let your child know that their feelings are valid. If you feel like your child is overreacting or misbehaving, put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if you were their age and having their experiences? It might help you to understand your child better, but no matter what you think about your child’s anxiety, it’s important to make sure they know that their feelings matter.

Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts

Ask your child about the thoughts they’re having that are causing them distress. Once you know the specific thoughts they’re having, you can help them to understand why those thoughts are unrealistic by asking them questions like “Has that ever happened before?” You can continue the conversation with something like “Yes, that could happen. But what else might happen? Could something good happen instead? What good thing might happen?”

Role Play With Your Child

If your child is concerned about a specific situation, it can be helpful to act out the scenario with them. After practicing meeting new people, for example, they may be less anxious and more confident and excited.

Teach Your Child Anxiety Management Techniques

Anxiety management techniques are simple enough for kids to do, and can be helpful in managing recurring anxiety. These practices are also called grounding techniques.

A few common exercises include:

Deep Breathing

The deep breathing process calms the body down and helps with managing overwhelming feelings.

Deep breathing involves:

  1. Inhaling through the nose for about 2 seconds
  2. Holding the breath at the top for about 1 second
  3. Exhaling gently for about 4 – 6 seconds

The 333 Rule for Anxiety

Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW recommends the 333 rule for calming anxiety symptoms.

The 333 rule for anxiety has three steps:

  1. Focus on 3 things you can see
  2. Focus on 3 things you can hear
  3. Focus on 3 things you can touch/move

You can work through the 333 rule with your child by helping them to identify the things around them that they can see, hear and touch. Ask them to name the items around them that they’re interacting with.

Leaves On a Stream

Another common grounding exercise is “leaves on a stream.” In this exercise, you would ask your child to imagine a stream of cool water. On top of the water are leaves that are falling gently from the blue sky. Tell your child to pretend that each leaf is one of their upsetting thoughts they’ve been having. And, finally, ask your child to imagine that a nice breeze is carrying all those leaves down the stream and away from them, one at a time.

Let them know that their thoughts are temporary and can be blown away just like those leaves, and that they can always imagine the stream any time they need help moving those thoughts out of their head.

Related: Shutdowns – Are They Different From Meltdowns?

RDI® Is Family Focused

We believe that making lasting, meaningful and lifelong changes begins at home with the child’s parents first. The RDI® program is designed to work with families’ goals, needs and schedules. 

How does the RDI® program work? We coach parents on how to break down – and then gradually rebuild – complex dynamic processes by carefully and systematically orchestrating the presentation of dynamic intelligence objectives within day to day interactions.

And we promise – it’s not as complicated as it sounds! These interactions are embedded in your family’s everyday routines and activities. Just by spending time with your child, you can help them to grow, develop and learn how to navigate our complex world. And you won’t be alone. You’ll be guided by your own RDI® Certified Consultant.

Ready to get started? Find your RDI® Consultant today.


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