Real Help for your Really Anxious Kid

Veterinarian weighs in on researchers' findings


Anxiety is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating mental health problems around.

It leaves adults and children in great distress and feeling as if nothing, and no one, can help.

With the recent well-publicized school closure in Los Angeles and a fatal attack at a Christmas party nearby, the stress of these and other events can leave us feeling a bit anxious about our safety and security.

Anxiety can be a stand-alone emotion or a catch-all term that may include worry, fear, poor concentration, avoidance of certain situations, and compulsions. For some people, anxiety becomes a way of life, severely impacting their functioning. It can also be a common, sometimes beneficial, emotion that we all experience from time to time.

Severe anxiety is often looked at as a symptom of a bigger issue. Obsessive compulsive disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety, panic attacks, and generalized anxiety disorder are a few of the mental health problems that have anxiety as a common denominator.

Anxiety can even be confused with the frequently diagnosed attention deficient disorder; both kids and adults may be jittery and have trouble focusing.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 18 percent of adults over the age of 18 in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder, as well as 1 in 8 children. It is safe to say we all know someone who struggles with some level of anxiety, perhaps a friend, partner, or child.

Remember that all children go through anxious periods, and there is no one-size-fits-all set of emotions. Suppose you have two kids. One might be funny and fearless, always the star of the show and who may end up in way over her head more times than not. The other one might be the worrier, but he may also be your thinker, with great problem-solving abilities.

Both children have enviable talents.

If you’re a parent of a child who falls into the “excessive worrying” and “painfully shy” categories that are the early hallmarks of anxiety, you don’t need a diagnosis to be concerned. In or out of counseling, a number of strategies will help you support a kid who struggles with anxiety.

Plan Ahead

When a particularly anxious situation approaches, set aside a little more time to manage it. If you know the night before a big test sends your tween into a panic, it probably isn’t the best time to knock out your taxes. Instead, plan to go over the study notes with your child or reinforce his or her good study habits. Make sure your child knows you understand his worries and don’t casually minimize those worries. Have a favorite snack or comfort food handy and allow your child to play with the dog or relax to a funny show. Then, steer him off to bed with enough time for maybe one more supportive conversation.

Reassure for Real

It is easy to get caught up in a paralyzing cycle of worry and guilt that feeds on itself. If your child is in this pattern, maintain some patience, but also reassure him that he’s OK and encourage healthy coping skills. One of the best ways to combat anxiety is distract yourself (or another) from all those anxious feelings. This gives the mind and body time to calm down. Get your youngster moving. Exercise is a great distraction and stress reliever. Has he eaten lately? Try to get him to eat a few healthy bite. This is not the time to load up on caffeine and sugar. Apple and peanut butter, anyone?

Be Discrete

Anxious kids often have anxious parents. It is best to keep a handle on the worrying you do in front of the kids. They don’t share your broad perspective of the world. Everyday worries about funding home repairs or their college fund can get blown way out of proportion by a worrying kid. That said, children benefit from some awareness of how things are going with the family. They need to learn about real-world problems and how to solve them. If the five-star vacation isn’t happening this year, no problem. Let them know that and solicit their help in planning an amazing camping trip or staycation.

Maintain Expectations

While you want to make accommodations for your anxious children at times, you can’t simply excuse them from all challenging situations either.

That would confirm their worries. And if you consistently give kids a free pass, they’ll come to expect that that’s the way things are done, which can translate into barriers for them as they grow up. Your kids will have to engage with others for a healthy social life, school projects, and eventually the workplace. Maintain expectations for your child — just find ones that are reasonable for their personality. Maybe they attend a nearby day camp and postpone sleep-away camp for a couple more years, or pick swimming over the more attention-getting basketball team. And if they want to try an out-of-character activity, by all means encourage it.

If your child is spending hours weighed down with worries and fears, a little time with a competent therapist or counselor would benefit both him and you. Don’t simply drop your young person off for the weekly session. Talk with the counselor about specific strategies you can use to support your child. Be open to trying a new way of doing things.

Anxiety can be brought under control, but if it’s left unresolved, it may lead to poor coping skills and lifelong struggles. Remember that children are resilient, but taking a little extra time to support healthy emotional development leads to all around healthier kids, parents, and families.

Jill Kaufmann, LMFT, is a family therapist in Bend, Oregon.

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