It’s not uncommon for children of all ages to worry. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children will experience some kind of clinical-level anxiety by the time they reach adolescence.
For most kids, these feelings of worry won’t last, but some children need extra support.
Pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw of Eugene Pediatric Associates says she’s seeing an unprecedented spike in the number of kids experiencing anxiety.
“We’re seeing kids who are anxious, seeking to withdraw from school, withdraw from friends and just try to stay in their homes, stay in their rooms, not participate in the world,” she says.
Worry is a natural response to a big event, change or challenge. Worrying isn’t necessarily bad unless it last too long, becomes too intense or happens too often.
It’s important to recognize the signs of anxiety, Dr. Bradshaw says. “Anxiety can produce different symptoms for different ages, but generally speaking, kids can feel a funny feeling in their tummy or in their chest or they have chronic headaches or they’re always having trouble sleeping,” she says. “That’s one of the biggest signs that kids have worries in their minds.”
Here are some tips to keep in mind for helping an anxious child:
- First, validate their feelings. It’s crucial that children feel heard and respected. Never dismiss a child’s worries.
- Spend time with them. Do this on a daily basis, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Do things together that you both enjoy.
- Help them think of how to handle things instead of trying to solve it for them. Support their good ideas. Talk it through together.
- Practice breathing techniques, such as deep-belly breathing or square breathing.
Staying active is another important way to help children focus and keep their minds occupied.
“It’s really important to keep a routine,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “To eat healthy, clean food. To get outside every day, to get fresh air, to exercise every day, to try to do some cardio because that will help you with anxiety feelings.”
Dr. Bradshaw says it’s good to discourage an anxious child from escaping from their feelings by going on their phone or other technology. “Your child will benefit more from learning techniques to help them cope through their feelings, rather than just trying to avoid them.”
Of course, there are times when children will need some time to calm down before you can talk effectively with them.
“For a young child, it can be helpful to have a calm down spot where you have a bean bag chair with a favorite blanket, favorite stuffed animal, lavender pillow and stress fidget things that they can do with their hands, a book to read,” Dr. Bradshaw says.
When to seek help
If your child has worry, stress or anxiety that seems too hard for them to handle, be sure to talk with your pediatrician.
“Anxiety and depression can be sort of intermingled and that’s an even more important reason to talk to your kids and then seek professional help for that,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “If we can recognize that yes, this is a kid who’s struggling with their mental health, giving them some tools that they can use to change how they think and change the brain chemistry that’s happening in their head, that’s going to be a gift that will allow them to use that strength throughout their entire life.”