Anxiety has always been a part of childhood – from getting good grades, making friends, family, the future, the list is endless. But it feels like the last three years have seen an uptick in anxiety, especially for children. Fear of sickness, combined with the isolation of online classes, and being distanced from support systems was difficult for everyone. This time has been scary for adults, let alone developing children who are just beginning to learn and explore the world outside of their home.
Fear of gun violence in school or public places has also become a more realistic fear than ever as children see and hear about the many tragic shootings and practice “active shooter drills” in school. In addition, there are the common anxieties of childhood: strangers, rejection, grades, family, the future. The list is endless. With all these recent stressors, how can we help keep kids feeling safe and secure in today’s world?
Here are some practical ideas:
1. Maintain a Predictable Routine.
Kids feel safer when they know what to expect. Communicate the plan for the day so they know what is happening and don’t have to fill in the blanks with worries.
2. Notice, Acknowledge, and Inquire About Your Child's Anxiety.
Even when it seems silly or unreasonable to you. The feeling is very real to your child. Validate how they are feeling. Notice their signals for anxiety. It may be crying, anger, irritability, hyperactivity, or even acting silly.
For example, “I notice that you seem restless today. What are you thinking about?” Giving them your time and attention will help them feel important and heard. Talking about their fears can help to decrease them.
3. Help Them Challenge Their Thinking.
Are there any misunderstandings you can clear up? Are they assuming something untrue? Processing their thoughts with them can help identify what is happening and decrease anxiety. Ask them “What do you think will happen? Has that happened before? Did things end up okay?”
4. Remind Them of Past Success.
Are there times when they were anxious, but they were able to be brave and do it anyway? Remind them of these victories and how it felt. Remember being brave is being scared – but doing it anyway. For example: “Remember when you were so nervous for Sally’s birthday party, but you were so brave and went anyway? Did you have a fun time?”
5. Take Small Steps and Have Reasonable Expectations
Any progress should be noticed and praised. Maybe they didn’t succeed in attending swimming lessons, but they at least got to the pool. Build upon and praise that small step to reach another one. Be patient, as it may take some time.
6. Identify Coping Skills When Calm
Identify coping skills when calm. There are many coping skills that can help decrease anxiety, but all kids are different. What coping skills could they try – deep breathing, walking, visualization, grounding, music, meditation, yoga, coloring, dancing, fidgets? There are many options. Keep a written or visual list to access when they become anxious. Practice these things when they are calm and join in with them to show your support.
7. Limit Screen Time.
Not only does the media greatly perpetuate anxiety with the news stories and headlines, but social media can result in seeing that they didn’t get invited to a party or their friends excluded them from the mall trip tonight. This can greatly increase anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as self-esteem concerns for kids. Extended screen time keeps the brain activated and less calm. It also decreases time for things that help ease anxiety, such as exercise, play, and social activities.
8. Seek Professional Help.
Most kids struggle with anxiety at times in their life, but if it is starting to impact their ability to learn at school, have or maintain friendships, or enjoy their life, it may be time to seek some professional help. Therapists are trained to assess for specific disorders and provide treatment that can decrease symptoms and make things easier so they can get back to being a kid again.
This blog post was written by Shawna Croaker, LCSW, Director of Community Based Services at Nexus-PATH.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 50 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.