Just because a child is young, and often protected and supported by their parents, it doesn’t mean they don’t have fears and worries. Especially over the past few years, when they were exposed to a global pandemic, that brought major changes in their lives, along with other events/issues they may hear about on TV or talked about socially by adults. Although some fears and worries are typical in children, like being afraid of the dark or changing schools, persistent or extreme forms of fear and sadness could be due to anxiety or depression.
According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) during the COVID-19 pandemic, depression and anxiety in youth doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels. In 2020, U.S. children aged 3 to 17 years were reported having experienced anxiety or depression, up from 9% in 2016.
Anxiety is one of the most common forms of fear or worry that kids and teens experience. The most common forms of anxiety are:
- Separation anxiety – when a child is terrified of being away from parent(s)/guardian(s).
- Phobia – a child can have an extreme fear about a specific thing or situation, like dogs, insects, getting sick or going to the doctors or dentist.
- Social anxiety – a child can be very fearful of going to school and other places where the expectation is to interact with others .
- General anxiety – is when a child can be worried about the future, parents, school, and about a number of other potential bad things happening.
- Panic disorders – if your child has repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear that come with symptoms like heart pounding, having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky or sweaty, they could experience panic attacks that can develop into a panic disorder if left untreated. This can occur immediately upon waking up as well and may be confused with a nightmare, if the child is not old enough to differentiate or verbalize their fears.
The response to anxiety relates to their level of cognitive and emotional development. Children express their anxiety through fear or worry, isolation, poor sleeping and eating habits and sometimes can even appear as irritable and angry. Young children are more likely to express their fear or anxiety by crying and having a tantrum, which makes it more likely for adults to consider behavioral problems and other disorders before thinking that it may be anxiety.
Although it is impossible to remove all sources of anxiety from your child’s life, and some amount of stress is healthy and necessary for building resiliency, there are ways to help your child understand, label, and cope with their anxiety. For instance, asking open-ended questions about how your child is feeling can help give them the comfort to open up, rather than dwell on what is causing their anxiety. For those who are nonverbal or are learning to speak, using pictures and stories can be helpful as well. Selective mutism is a form of anxiety, not a language disorder, and it comes with its own set of challenges. Identifying selective mutism early on can help children and their families better prepare for situations, people or environments that bring on the silence.
Additional ways you can help your child cope with their anxiety:
- Teach your child to recognize the signs of anxiety, including physical symptoms
- Stick to a regular routine whenever possible
- Allow your child to have their space and allow them to use the security of a physical space, a person, or objects to comfort them
- Provide children with alternatives for expressing their feelings and needs, which can be done through safe physical and/or sensory activities, arts and crafts and therapy
- Practice taking three deep, slow breaths together with your child.
- To help calm your child down if they are having a panic attack or an anxious moment, give them an object and ask them to describe it in as much detail as possible
Some parents may find it difficult to start having the conversation with their child about their anxiety, for fear of not wanting to trigger their anxiety or create more of it. Some parents may minimize their child’s feelings making them feel like they don’t have much to worry about as a child. However, not addressing your child’s needs will most likely lead to increased anxiety and worry, difficulties socializing, decreased self-esteem, especially if your child keeps their feelings inside or reacts in unhealthy ways. It’s best to address your child’s worries and help them work through their feelings, even if you feel it’s extreme can make their anxiety worse. This should be done in age-appropriate ways, meeting the child wherever they are cognitively and emotionally. If the idea of dealing with strong emotions or fears feels overwhelming for you as caregiver or you don’t know where to start, a therapist may be the resource you need to tap into. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, it’s always available.
Remember that we are all in in this together, and these past few years have been hard on everyone. Setting a positive example and support for sharing feelings and coping strategies will help the entire family connect.
The Stramski Children’s Developmental Center at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach provides psychological testing to identify anxiety or other difficulties that may impact a child or a family’s ability to thrive. Resources to connect you and your child to the right services will be provided, along with recommendations, to help your child understand and combat their anxiety.