What can parents do to help children manage anxiety?

By Miles J. Varn, M.D., Chief Executive Officer at PinnacleCare

It’s no surprise that more people than ever are living with anxiety. The ongoing pandemic and its emotional and economic fallout, social injustice, and disrupted lives all contribute to a marked increase in people who are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety. And adults aren’t the only ones experiencing these mental health struggles.

A new poll from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that more than 50% of adults surveyed with children under 18 say they’re concerned about their children’s mental wellbeing. Around 48% of respondents noted that the pandemic caused mental health problems for one or more of their children.

The first step for parents who want to help their children manage their anxiety is to learn what anxiety looks like in children. Signs of anxiety can include:

· In younger children, increased irritability and crying as well as problems soothing themselves without a parent’s help

· Regressive behaviors like bedwetting or renewed clinginess

· Physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, shortness of breath/rapid breathing, frequent urge to use the bathroom, poor appetite, sleep problems

· Need for frequent reassurance, rigid behavior, avoiding situations that trigger their anxiety, feeling overwhelmed

· Hypervigilance (increased alertness and extreme sensitivity to surroundings)

While a parent’s first instinct may be to protect their child from anxiety by removing any potential sources of stress, that solution is only temporary. A longer-term approach is to help your children learn coping skills so they can eventually manage anxiety on their own. The feeling of empowerment that comes with mastering these coping skills can also help children feel calmer and more confident when faced with stress, reducing the intensity of any anxiety they do feel in these situations.

Here are several other strategies parents can use to help their children manage anxiety:

· If your child is panicking, help him or her calm down first. When anxiety induces panic, it will be difficult for your child to listen to anything you say. So, the first thing you should do is help your child calm down. Guide the child in mindful breathing. Try refocusing the child by talking about a topic other than the one that’s worrying her or him.

· Don’t dismiss your child’s fears out of hand. This advice is a bit more complicated because of the pandemic. Many parents actually share their children’s fears and anxieties about the health of loved ones and whether life will ever get back to normal. The first step, then, is to make sure you have your own anxiety in check. It’s also important not to dismiss your child’s concerns with a statement like, “Oh, don’t worry. Dad won’t get sick.” Instead, acknowledge what your children are feeling. This helps them know they are heard and their feelings are respected. What you want to avoid is unintentionally sending the message that your child should be anxious or afraid with your own anxious or tentative tone of voice or body language.

· Have a plan for dealing with anxious feelings. While this may not work as well for very young children, helping your children build a plan that details what they can do when they feel anxious can help them rein in those feelings. Help them get familiar with the negative thoughts they experience most often so they can catch the thought when it pops up. Encourage them to ask themselves if the thought is realistic. Empower them to change the negative thought to a positive one. For example, if they worry that people will laugh at them for not knowing something, teach them to reframe that feeling. Help them formulate what positive encouragement they’d give to a friend in the same situation. It’s also helpful to model your own coping strategies.

· Help your child build resilience. Some resilience-building strategies to try include having your child help others, which can help them feel more empowered when dealing with their anxiety. It’s also helpful to encourage them to follow a daily routine, which provides structure and a feeling that things are under control. And help your child take part in regular self-care activities they enjoy like being active, drawing or writing, or talking with friends and family.

If your child’s anxiety (or your own) is making it difficult to handle day-to-day activities or causing ongoing, high levels of distress, make an appointment with a mental healthcare provider. A health advisor can help you connect with a provider who specializes in caring for children with anxiety.

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