This was my first-grade picture. Cute little thing. I attended public school in Mississippi and corporal punishment was still in practice. It never happened to me but seeing other kids being spanked and manhandled gave me a lot of fear and anxiety that I didn’t know what to do with. I spent a lot of time in the nurse’s office with stomachaches. My parents thought I was having a hard time adjusting to school. My teachers wondered why this little blond girl was often brought to tears in class and wondered about my home life. I didn’t have the words to explain what I was feeling so no one knew. Fast forward years later to having children of my own and I sometimes recognize the same anxiety in my child. We know that anxiety comes from many different factors and there is no one solution for anxiety. The good news is there are many different research-based ways to help manage it.
Children Don’t Express Anxiety Like Adults:
1 in 8 children in the US experience anxiety. (1) Children often do not have the words or the experience to know how to explain what they are feeling or that the feeling is anxiety. They often show their anxiety as physical feelings such as:
- Avoiding school or refusing to go
- Poor concentration in school or at home, not doing well at school academically
- Behavior problems at school
- Difficulty sleeping
- Chronic fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain and/or heart palpitations
What Can Be Done
I’ve written previously about the benefits of stress management as a family using methods like Emotional Freedom Technique, deep breathing, and mindfulness. Other therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, EMR, biofeedback, acupuncture/pressure, homeopathy, craniosacral and somatic release therapies have also shown success in managing anxiety in children. Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can often be as, or more effective with anxiety symptoms than pharmaceuticals. (2)
There is, of course, my usual plug for a healthy lifestyle with a varied diet low in processed food but high in omega 3s, B vitamins, magnesium and protein, solid sleep, exercise and time in nature benefitting most anyone with anxiety. Bottom line: people of any age feel better physically AND emotionally when they’re healthier.
Herbal teas like chamomile, lavender and lemon balm have been used for hundreds of years to calm anxiety in children as well. While temporary anxiety is a common childhood experience, complaints that become more consistent or interfere with daily functioning should be discussed with your doctor, including the range of treatment options above.
A recent study examining the functional MRI scans of newborn infants show brain connectivity patterns associated with anxiety and depression present even at birth. (3) Researchers followed up two years later and found that the severity of early anxiety and depression symptoms corresponded to this same connectivity pattern. We know that many things influence anxiety including having a parent who is anxious. Now this may seem like a no-win spiral, but new research shows that this anxiety in children of parents with anxiety can be prevented. Researchers found that families who completed an 8-week cognitive behavioral therapy session, learned stress identification/coping skills and lowered overall parental stress reduced anxiety symptoms in children. (4) This opens an exciting opportunity to be proactive in your child’s anxiety or risk for anxiety.
Three Steps for Right Now
There is a lot we can do as a family to manage anxiety in ourselves and our children right now.
Slow Down– Stop, engage with and breathe with your child. Empathize with your child and wait until the child has calmed down before looking for solutions. Make space for the anxiety rather than trying to sweep the anxiety under the rug or minimize it. This allows you the chance to calm down too. I was not very good at this with my first child. The anxiety and immediate gut wrenching/heart attack feeling I got whenever I heard that little baby cry overwhelmed my coping skills, making it hard to calm down. I’ve gotten better at this over time and I can tell a profound difference between how my children navigate stress and anxiety with me now compared to then.
Reframe Anxiety– Reassure your child that anxiety is normal and not to be feared. Many kids start to fear the anxiety and view it as some kind of flaw in themselves. Anxiety is a natural defense system that can keep us safe but, if it gets too bossy, we need to help it rest. In our house we often talk about the anxiety or worry being a helper that is so eager to help, it often needs help being put to bed. This is when we incorporate the stress management techniques to calm that overzealous helper down.
Don’t Avoid– As parents, it is hard to see our child suffer. While it is tempting to avoid those things and situations that can cause anxiety in our children, this avoidance makes the anxiety worse. Keeping ourselves and our children in the “What Is” state, rather than the “What If” state, we can begin to face the anxiety step by step. For example, one of my littles had extreme anxiety over the vacuum, so I wore her in a front pack while vacuuming, then had her in the room with me on the bed or couch while I vacuumed and finally she was able to be anywhere in house while I vacuumed without anxiety. As soon as she was entirely comfortable with a step, we’d move on to the next one. Making small steps each day to decrease our stress and the stress of our children has a huge impact on our children’s anxiety and ours as well.
I should add one more step: Be gentle with yourself. Parenting is a tough gig and, though we do the best we can, we will make mistakes sometimes. Kiss your kids, give apologies and begin again. Feeling stress and anxiety about stress and anxiety doesn’t do anyone any good so cut yourself some slack. Breath. You’ve got this.
– Dr. Catherine Clinton ND
(2) Wang Z, Whiteside SPH, Sim L, et al. Comparative Effectiveness and Safety of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Pharmacotherapy for Childhood Anxiety DisordersA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2017;171(11):1049–1056. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.3036
(3) Rogers CE, Sylvester CM, Mintz C, Kenley JK, Shimony JS, Barch DM, Smyser CD. Neonatal amygdala functional connectivity at rest in healthy and preterm infants and early internalizing symptoms. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol 56 (2), pp. 157-166, February 2016
(4) Ginsburg, GS, Drake KL, Tein JY, et al. Preventing Onset of Anxiety Disorders in Offspring of Anxious Parents: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Family-Based Intervention. American Journal of Psychiatry 2015; 172:1207-1213.