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Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

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Anxiety in Kids: The Skills to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life

Anxiety is a normal response to something dangerous or stressful. It becomes a problem when it shows up at unexpected times and takes a particularly firm hold. When anxiety is in full swing, it feels awful. Awful enough that anticipation of the feeling is enough in itself to cause anxiety.

We already know that anxiety has nothing to do with strength, courage or character. It picks a target and it switches on.

When that target is a child or teen, it can be particularly distressing, causing problems with sleeping, eating and missed school from unexplained illnesses such as sick tummies or headaches. 

One of the worst things about anxiety is the way it can happen without any identifiable cause. The physical feeling is familiar – that panicked feeling that comes when you miss a stair or as my daughter recently described, ‘that feeling you get when you’re almost asleep and you feel like you’re falling.’ (‘Yes, we’ve dealt with it in our home too. It’s under control now, so I can assure you this works.)

The good news is that anxiety in kids is very treatable and they are particularly responsive. I often think we don’t give them enough credit. They’re so open to possibility, and very quick to make the right connections when they’re given the right information and support. As the adult in their life, you’re the perfect one to give it.

Anxiety in Kids and Teens: Turning it Around 

  1. Don’t talk them out of it.

    As a parent, the temptation is to reassure your child with gentle comments in the way of, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ or ‘You’ll be fine’.

    This comes from the purest of intentions but it runs the risk of them feeling as though there’s something wrong with them. The truth is that when anxiety has a hold of them, they can no sooner stop worrying than fly to the moon. As much as they want to believe you, their brains just won’t let them.

    What they need to hear is that you get it. Ask them what it feels like for them. They may or may not be able to articulate – and that’s okay. Then, ask if it’s ‘like that feeling you get when you miss a stair,’ (or ‘that feeling you get when you feel like you’re falling in your sleep’). Often, this in itself is such a relief because ‘someone gets it.’

  2. Normalise.

    Explain that:

    •. Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life – before an exam, when meeting new people, going for an interview or starting at a new school.

    •  Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. That’s also normal. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids but there are things you can do to make it go away. 

  3. Explain why anxiety feels like it does.

    Out of everything, this is perhaps the most powerful intervention for anyone with anxiety. Anxiety causes the most problems when it seems to come on without any real trigger. There’s a reason for this, and understanding the reason is key to managing the anxiety.

    Here is a child-friendly explanation. I’ve used it for a variety of ages, but nobody knows your child like you do so adjust it to suit. 

    ‘Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from. The part of the brain is called the amygdala. It’s not very big and it’s shaped like an almond.  

    It switches on when it thinks you’re in danger, so really it’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. It’s job is to get you ready to run away from the danger or fight it. People call this ‘fight or flight’.

    If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out. It’s a doer not a thinker – all action and not a lot of thought.

    If there is something dangerous – a wild dog you need to run away from, a fall you need to steady yourself from – then the amygdala is brilliant. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all. 

    Have you ever made toast that has got a bit burnt and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can’t tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won’t, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it’s switching on for. It’s always working hard to protect you – even when you don’t need protecting. It’s a doer not a thinker, remember, and this is how it keeps you safe.

    If you don’t need to run away or fight for your life, there’s nothing to burn all that fuel – the oxygen, hormones and adrenalin – that the amygdala has flooded you with. It builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety. It’s like if you just keep pouring petrol into a car and never take the car for a drive.

    So when the amygdala senses a threat it floods your body with oxygen, adrenaline and hormones that your body can use to fuel its fight or flight. When this happens:

    ♦   Your breathing changes from normal slow deep breaths to fast little breaths. Your body does this because your brain has told it to stop using up the oxygen for strong breaths and send it to the muscles to they can run or fight.

    When this happens you might feel puffed or a bit breathless. You also might feel the blood rush to your face and your face become warm.

    ♦    If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up and the carbon dioxide drops.

    This can make you feel dizzy or a bit confused.

    ♦   Your heart beats faster to get the oxygen around the body.

    Your heart can feel like it’s racing and you might feel sick.

    ♦   Fuel gets sent to your arms (in case they need to fight) and your legs (in case they need to flee).

    Your arms and legs might tense up or your muscles might feel tight.

    ♦   Your body cools itself down (by sweating) so it doesn’t overheat if it has to fight or flee

    You might feel a bit sweaty.

    ♦   Your digestive system – the part of the body that gets the nutrients from the food you eat – shuts down so that the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your arms and legs in case you have to fight or flee. (Don’t worry though – it won’t stay shut down for long.)

    You might feel like you have butterflies in your tummy. You might also feel sick, as though you’re going to vomit, and your mouth might feel a bit dry. 

    As you can see, there are very real reasons for your body feeling the way it does when you have anxiety. It’s all because your amygdala – that fierce warrior part of your brain – is trying to protect you by getting your body ready to fight or flee. Problem is – there’s nothing to fight or flee. Don’t worry though, there are things we can do about this.’

  4. Explain how common anxiety is in adults and kids.

    About 1 in 8 kids have struggled with anxiety – so let them know that in their class, there’s a good chance that 3 or 4 other kids would know exactly what they’re going through because they’ve been through it before. Maybe they’re going through it right now.

  5. Give it a Name.

    ‘Now that you understand that your anxiety feelings come from the ‘heroic warrior’ part of your brain, let’s give it a name.’ Let your child pick the name and ask them what they think of when they picture it. This will help them to feel as though something else is the problem, not them. It also demystifies their anxiety. Rather than it being a nameless, faceless ‘thing’ that gets in their way, it’s something contained – with a name and a look. 

  6. Now Get Them Into Position.

    ‘The problem with anxiety is that [whatever their ‘heroic warrior’ is called – for the moment, let’s say, ‘Zep’] Zep is calling all the shots but we know that you’re really the boss. Zep actually thinks it’s protecting you, so what you need to do is let it know that you’ve got this and that it can relax. When you get those anxious feelings, that means Zep is taking over and getting ready to keep you safe. It doesn’t think about it at all – it just jumps in and goes for it. What you need to do is to let it know that you’re okay. 

    The most powerful thing you can do to make yourself the boss of your brain again is breathe. It sounds so simple – and it is. Part of the reason you feel as you do is because your breathing has gone from strong and slow and deep to quick and shallow. That type of breathing changes the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Once your breathing is under control, Zep will stop thinking he has to protect you and he’ll settle back down. Then, really quickly after that, you’ll stop feeling the way you do.’ 

  7. And breathe.

    Breathe deeply and slowly. Hold your breath just for a second between breathing in and breathing out. Make sure the breath is going right down into your belly – not just into your chest. You can tell because your belly will be moving. Do this about 5 to 10 times.

    Practice before bed every day. Remember that Zep, the warrior part of your brain, has been protecting you for your entire life so it might take a little bit of practice to convince Zep to relax. But keep practicing and you’ll be really good at it in no time. You and that warrior part of your brain will be buddies – but with you in control.

    One way to practice is by putting a soft toy on your child’s belly when they lie down. If the toy is moving up and down, their breathing is perfect. 

  8. Practice mindfulness.

    An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness.  MRI studies have shown that practicing mindfulness increases the density of gray matter in the brain, providing relief and protection from stress, anxiety and depression. See here for more information.

    Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated. Essentially, it’s being aware of the present moment. My daughter does 10 minutes before bed. 

    Start by explaining that anxiety comes about because of worry about the future and what might happen. Sometimes these thoughts happen in the background – we don’t even know they’re there. Mindfulness helps you to have control over your brain so you can stop it from worrying about things it doesn’t need to. It trains your brain to stay in the here and now. The brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. 

    It sounds easy enough but minds quite like to wander so staying in the moment can take some practice. Here’s the how:

    1. Close your eyes and notice your breathing. How does the air feel as you draw it inside you? Notice the sensation of the air, or your belly rising and falling. Notice your heart beating. If your mind starts to wander, come back to this.

    2. Now, what can you hear? What can you feel outside of you and inside your body? If your mind starts to wander, focus on your breathing again. 

Remember that anxiety in kids is very treatable but it might take time. Explain to your child that his or her very clever and very protective brain might need some convincing that just because it thinks there’s trouble coming, doesn’t mean there is. Keep practicing and they’ll get there. 

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734 Comments

asma

my 4.5 years old daughter has anxiety . she is very shy and get anxious in social situations does not eat wel and sleep is also very short . she is never speak to her teacher in the class and has only one friend only plays with her. never greet any one and feel sever anxiety in new situation. has night terrors also. plz suggest me

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Asma many of the things you are describing aren’t unusual given that your daughter is 4 years old. Many young children get shy and quiet when they are in social situations or unfamiliar situations. It is also not unusual for kids this age to only have one particular friend, particularly if they are naturally shy. Your daughter may naturally have a shy temperament, which is completely okay and is something that she will learn to manage in time. Shyness and anxiety are different though, and it may be that your daughter does have anxiety but it is difficult for me to say, and to separate the behaviour which is normal given her age, and that which might be driven by anxiety, without knowing more. If you are concerned, it would be helpful to speak to a counsellor who can properly assess your daughter and help with some strategies. Night terrors (which are different to nightmares) have been associated with normal sleep development in children and they generally grow out of night terrors at around 6 years of age. Night terrors are distressing to watch as a parent, but there is generally no need for concern as it is generally not a sign of a deeper psychological or medical issue. Again, it is difficult to say for certain without knowing more but a counsellor would be able to help you with this. Unlike nightmares, with night terrors children don’t remember them in the morning because they are in such deep sleep when the night terror happens. The main things for your to do are to have a nightly bedtime routine and to make sure she is calm when she goes to bed. Night terrors can be more common in kids who are tired or stressed, so if you are concerned, I would strongly encourage you to see a counsellor who will be able to help you get to the bottom of what might be happening for your daughter or to see if there is any need for concern.

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asma

thank you so much for reply this is what her teacher says me she ll come out of it its normal at this age group but i am very concerned because she is going to school from last 3 years n how its is normal if child goes every day to class and never speak a single word in 2 years. she never speak in the class never answar to any question if teacher asks never greet any one in the class. moreover a person comes to my home for religious teaching every day she met him every day for three months of period and does nt talk to him if i force her and she says hello but her heart beat fast nad she got sweating and she is in fight flight reaction. i want to add she always remains worried over daily routine things every morning she wakes up with worry in her mind e.g, shall i get seat in the class next to my friend ?
we are getting late from school
i ll not wear jeans only dress etc.
at night it is almost always difficult to get sleep she remains worried door should not close light should not off if i get frightened during sleep. she has very restless n short sleep. while walking with her in street i feel tension in her facial muscles and never loose her muscles. if i go out with her to new place she remains tens and repeatedly ask me i am afraid we ll get lost , do u m
know the way back to home ?
now i am more worried because she sarts complaining other children make fun of me they dont like me because i am smaller than them. no body be my friend and i dont know how to make friends.

Reply
Brenda

I’m not an expert by all means and I’m practically in your same situation. I suggest you consider joining a parent support group to help guide you. It’s important for us caregivers to gain the confidence that our children are lacking. My daughter has experienced panic attacks and anxiety with Selctive Mutism. Having a routine helps her cope with her anxiety so running late for school or forgetting her backpack for example may trigger her anxiety. It’s happened to my daughter and I’ve had to make adjustments to our lifestyle to help her with it. by having a routine you’re providing comfort and security so that when you do run late or forget her homework, she’ll be able to better handle the situation. I remember forgetting to put her homework in her folder one time and letting her teacher know but not my daughter. I knew that if I’d tell her she’s build her anxiety to a point where she’d cry. I waited anxiously at the end of the day to ask her how her day had gone without any emphasis. She later says to me “mommy, did you know that you forgot to put my h.w in my bag”? I said “I did baby, I’m sorry. Was everything ok”? She says “yes” and smiles. First thing we learned from therapy was to build her confidence and self esteem and things should fall into place. You’ll only cause more anxiety by drilling them about her insecurities and concerns. Reassuring her constantly should ease her worries. It all takes time and practice. Again, I’m no expert but I’m learning as we go and talking to other parents and professionals and doing research pays off. Best of luck!

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Monique

Hi Asma,
People used to tell me my daughter was just shy and would grow out of it too. Her behaviour sounds very familiar to your daughter. I eventually learned about Selective Mutism and the description fit my daughter. We are now overcoming the mutism and she is able to talk to many friends at school and even her teachers in certain situations. The earlier you learn techniques to help her find her voice the better she will respond. Best wishes on your journey.

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Sara

Thank you so much for this article & your perspective on anxiety. My 3yr old, who has been labeled as gifted by his doctor and teachers, struggles with intense & uncontrollable emotions. I’m not referring to normal toddler emotions either, I’m talking about todder emotions on steroids. I haven’t had him tested since he just turned 3, but he’s been reading since 2 1/2 and is teaching himself spanish so I believe them lol. Anyways, after reading your article last night it all made sense. It’s obvious when he is in the middle of these manic moments he has no control & I’ve been struggling with more of the fight than flight response for quite some time. This morning I had a similar conversation with him about what’s going on in his body & brain & why it’s going on. He named his feeling grey & I made up a little song (because he is still only 3) to sing when he starts to feel it. I am amazed & oh so grateful that today I finally saw progress. For the first time he has been able to be in control of what he is feeling & the difference I witnessed within him is remarkable. We will continue to work on deep breathing & mindfulness & thank you thank thank you for sharing this.

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Hey Sigmund

Sara, you’re so welcome! I’m pleased this has been helpful for you and your son. Your little man’s experience makes a lot of sense. He sounds like a thinker so it’s understandable that being able to understand what is happening inside himself would be important to him. A song is a wonderful idea and such a great way anchor for him when he starts to feel his big feelings. It sounds as though he is in great hands.

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Mary

I’m 23 and have suffered from anxiety as long as I can remember. I’ve learned several different tricks about helping my attacks, but this article is amazing! It explained anxiety better than any therapist or doctor has to me before. Its amazing how understand why something happens helps it not seem so scary anymore.
I have a 2 year old that has recently started acting very afraid of things recently. It reminds me of who I felt when I was younger. Afraid to be alone, not wanting to go in different rooms by myself. She tells me she is afraid of her bed and doors and windows. I was like that younger too. Always afraid someone or something was going to get me and I still often have this fear. How can I help her this young? She speaks really well for her age, but I don’t think she’s old enough to understand all of this. How can I help her with her being so young?

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Brenda

I love your article! I plan on using it with my daughter. It’s very detailed yet simply put together for the little minds.

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Jackie

This is just what we are going through with my 11 year old son.
Luckily (sort of) my daughter with autism also has been through this, and with cbt at camhs, we have come through it.
She was told, just like you have, why it happens, and given ways to combat it.. So after a year off school. She has now been everyday fir the last 6 months.
My son happened to come to an appointment with us and the lovely lady, spoke to him about it.
Fingers crossed he will beach to school soon. Reading this has Re informed me again. Thank you. X

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Dori

We use Jeddy’s Blend in our house. It is natural and works amazing. I no longer have to use medication and my daughter with Asperger’s uses it as well. Brings me right out of an anxiety attack while breathing it in.

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Aubrey

My 10 year old has anxiety. Not social anxiety, but a fear of “what if”. For example: If she can’t find her younger sister at school, she will begin to panic and cry. She recently told me that at night, she feels like someone is going to break into our house and kidnap her. My daughter has also been diagnosed with Trichotillomania. Although she says she doesn’t realize she’s pulling, I notice it’s worse when she’s feeling frustrated about homework, or mad about a negative consequence of her actions. In spite of these issues, she is smart, outgoing, has many friends, and is involved in sports and piano. I just don’t want her to live in fear. Any suggestions, tips, resources you can give for dealing with these issues?

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Hey Sigmund

The key really is teaching your daughter to stay in the present moment, and at the same time reinforcing her capacity to cope with anything that might happen. It’s important not to avoid the things she is bothered by because the more she avoids situations she is worried about, the more it will reinforce to her that the only way to feel better is to avoid the things she is worried about.

If you feel that the problem is getting too much in the way, and bigger than can be dealt with at home, your daughter might need outside support, either through a school counsellor or a therapist who is used to dealing with kids and anxiety.

You can also do some really important things at home that will make a difference. The strategies explained in this article are powerful, particularly explaining where the anxiety is coming from. Mindfulness has been shown in a lot of research to have great capacity to ease the symptoms of anxiety. Here are some ways to do that http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/. Aside from this, getting enough sleep is critical and exercise also builds up the neurochemicals in the brain to help deal with anxiety. All of the anxiety articles are on this link http://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Hopefully there will be something here that will help bring comfort to your daughter.

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Susan

WOW! your website and anxiety in children article showed up on my facebook feed days after a very scary meltdown from my 10 y/o son. He has been in counseling for anxiety for 6 months. Seeing the various articles has been like an ah ha moment for our family. Everything is written in a way it just really made us understand. We are now seeing a hope in helping him get control of his meltdowns. We practicing breathing techniques, made a mindful jar and talk openly about what he feels like, so we all understand his struggle. He has told us about the names he is called at school and how he has been made to feel abnormal by children and adults at school. I wish our educators had more training in handling children with anxiety. Our experience is they consider the actions as naughty, trouble makers, so they embarrass and punish, compounding the anxiety. Do you have info that can be shared with people in the education field? I am so grateful I found you on facebook! I am gaining hope that I can actually be the mom my little boy needs to get him through this “speedbump” in his life.

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Hey Sigmund

Susan I’m grateful that you found me here too! It sounds as though you are giving your little man exactly what he needs from you. Teachers play such a big role don’t they. The ones who understand about anxiety, or who are open to understanding it are wonderful and make such a huge difference. Here are a couple of articles that might help, but this one here is an important one to help understand the symptoms of anxiety. It can help for people to understand that it has a physiological basis.
>> Anxious Kids at School – How to Help Them Soar http://www.heysigmund.com/anxious-kids-at-school-how-to-help-them-soar/
>> Dealing With School Anxiety – Powerful Things That Adults Can Do http://www.heysigmund.com/school-anxiety-what-parents-can-do/

These are probably the best ones in terms of school, but all of the anxiety articles are on this link http://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/.

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Ellie

I needed to read this so bad. My husband and I have a 9 year old son who has been very emotional in the last few months. At night he still doesn’t lay down by himself to go to sleep because he is so scared. If we make him go to his room without us he starts crying. Then it becones a battle because he works himself up to the point he almost gets sick. He also has been going through this “I miss you” phase. We will be sitting in the living room, or like today driving him to school, and he starts crying saying he misses us. I’m a stay at home mom (almost a year now) and try my hardest to always be present with him, ask him questions, talk about his day, his homework, his friends. We play together everyday and/or walk together around our subdivision most days just spending time together. My husband tries to play with him but works late and exhausted when he gets home but he always tries. I feel we might even put extra attention on him because we had a daughter almost a year ago. I thought maybe it was related to that but he only started doing this a few months ago. I’ve asked if something is going on at school and he says no, everyday we talk about recess and he tells me all the friends he played with, and there are neighborhood kids that come over and play basketball.

Last night my husband and I talked about him possibly having anxiety but didn’t know how to approach it. After reading this is have a start.

Thank you so much. I just want the best for him and it breaks my heart to see him so sad. I’m his mom and supposed to protect him from the world but feel like I’m failing. This is giving me some resources to help though.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Gosh Ellie you are NOT failing! You are giving your son everything he needs. Sometimes they might get skittled by things but those things so often have absolutely nothing to do with the parents we are. You are loving, attentive and responsive, but that won’t change life throwing up curve balls sometimes. Here is an article that might help with the problems going to sleep – try the stepladder http://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/. This is an opportunity for your little man to learn strategies and skills that will introduce him to his own resilience and courage – it’s there, in him, the task now is to teach him how to uncover it. It sounds as though he’s in wonderful hands.

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Paul

Hi, thank you for the article, very helpful! One question though, what do you do when your child is resistant to talking about their feeling and is not interested in trying strategies, namely deep breaths?

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Hey Sigmund

Ahhh – this is when you might need to get creative. You might have to go first when it comes to talking about your feelings. The incidental chats are often the best – in the car, while you are cooking, just before bed. Feed back what you see, ‘I notice that when we get close to school … This sort of thing happens to me sometimes too. For me it feels … What does it feel like for you?’ If it is something new, it might feel awkward or clumsy, so keep modelling and wait for your child to be curious enough.

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Carleen

Hi
I have a 6 year old daughter who is outwardly confident, social and well liked by others. She talks a lot and struggles to focus at times.

Every morning I struggle with getting her to school as she mucks around and doesn’t do what she should. We both get frustrated and it generally ends up with me yelling. It is making us both miserable. She said she is worried about school and not having friends (we moved towns 3 months ago) but at the end of the day she is happy and doesn’t want to leave. She also wants me to come in to class and drop her off every day and is still frequently in tears when I go. (She has done this since she started school not just since we moved). She is also very anxious about us going and leaving her with other people and we are finding it exhausting. I also have a 2 year old. Can you give any advice? Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

Your daughter’s experience makes a lot of sense. Anxiety doesn’t always have a clear reason for being there and anxious kids are often well-liked kids with big open hearts. They have a brain that is supersensitive to threat, even if there is nothing at all to be worried about. It’s a strong, healthy brain but it works a little too hard to protect them. It can be so exhausting for you both though can’t it. Here are some articles that will hopefully help:

>> Dealing With School Anxiety – Powerful Things That Parents Can Do http://www.heysigmund.com/school-anxiety-what-parents-can-do/
>> How to Empower Your Child to Deal With School Anxiety http://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-deal-with-school-anxiety-no-more-distressing-goodbyes/
>> 18 Important Things Kids With Anxiety Need to Know http://www.heysigmund.com/kids-with-anxiety-need-to-know/
>> What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/
>> Mindfulness For Children http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/

Your daughter is still getting used to how the world works and learning to trust that she’ll be okay in it. There’s so much to learn at her age. It’s possible that when she thinks about you leaving, either at school drop-off, or when you leave her with someone else, she is worried about something happening to you. This is a really common fear at this age and kids generally grow out of it in time (though I understand how distressing it can be in the meantime). She may grow out of it or she may always be a little vulnerable to anxiety but if she is, there are certainly ways for her to manage it so that it doesn’t get in her way. The articles will hopefully give you some strategies to try that will make a difference. I have included the mindfulness one because there is a ton of research showing that mindfulness can change the structure of the brains in ways that strengthen it against anxiety. If you can find a mindfulness exercise that works for her, keep at it. It’s such a great thing for them to have because of the way it strengthens them.

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Carleen Thomson

I have just seen your reply – thank you. I will look at the articles as we are still struggling. We have however picked up that she has a specific learning disability with reading and are starting lessons with Speld so I am hoping this may help her too.

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Karen Borg

Hi Carleen, I had to reply as I had the same situation with the same aged kids, (both daughters) after a move. I picked up a book called “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listens so Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish . I followed their scenario of when the young child doesn’t want to go to school, daycare etc.. seems clingy, etc. When she started to fuss, I said, “you don’t want to go to school”, she nodded, I said, “becaue you will miss mommy””. She nodded, stopped crying, and got her sweater on and off we went. No more fussing around. I know it sounds too good to be true, but I found that my kids needed to be heard and acknowledged, which made a huge difference. There is another book by the same author called, “Siblings Without Rivalry” which is great for when they get into it with each other. With the help from this book, I can say that they are still good friends. Even now they are 19 and 20 and the same holds. Rather than explaining and telling, I listen and acknowledge and all are happier.

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Carleen Thomson

Thank you Karen, the first book you recommended sounds great and I do think you are right that she feels better when I hear and acknowledge her feelings. I will see if I can find it. 🙂

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brian

Thank you so much for all of your great information in this article, and for the people commenting in need of help.

My wife and I have run into a terrible period the last six months with our son, who just turned 8. He is an exceptional athlete, has been since birth and has loved every minute of it all since. However at the beginning of this year, after just making a travel baseball 8U team he got Mono, fully diagnosed. He also got strep many times, and small levels in his bloodstream. For first couple of months we didn’t even know he had it. He got hit with a ball in the face and then stopped having interest in going to the baseball practices. We figured it was fear after getting hit so wouldn’t let him quit because of that. He kept saying he was tired and we pushed him to go thinking that was just an excuse. It was silly of us not to realize something else was going on since he didn’t have a normal appetite and this behavior of melting down was very strange for him. He had always been extremely chill and mellow and just the easiest child since birth.

Once diagnosed he was in later stages of the mono so we managed and held him out until he started feeling better. However we kept him involved with the team and eventually he played some games. But he pushed away and began to hate it all it seemed. At that point we quit since we just felt like we couldn’t push him anymore for fear he would hate it for life. We took a couple of months off, and physically he seems finally back to himself in all other areas. We tried to ease him back into baseball with this same team in the summer and have mixed reactions from him. Mostly it seems like a major anxiety issue with him. When he’s able to relax once there, he tends to love it and have fun. but more often than not something spooks him and he then pulls back and “taps out”. We know deep down that he still loves sports which is why we’ve tried to ease him in even though he shows apprehension. But it’s just so hard as a parent to see him struggle and get that lump in his throat…seems he makes up different excuses each time…like pitcher throwing too hard, or feel dizzy, etc. We don’t know if it’s best to let him quit and give him more time to miss and love it again, or to help him cope with the anxiety issues and keep trying. The coaches are amazingly understanding and have had to deal with this for 6 months of start/stopping. Just don’t know if stopping entirely is better to alleviate his pressure, or to help cope. We have read that anxiety often lurks for a while after mono, so hopefully it will pass on it’s own as well and we can get that kid back that we know. It’s all very strange and stressful on our whole family as we struggle with finding and agreeing on the best strategies. Thanks for your input on this all. This article alone is step one in how we can help him understand it.

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Hey Sigmund

It’s so difficult watching your kids struggle with something that they used to have no problem wit isn’t it. It sounds as though you are handling this beautifully and giving your son exactly the support he needs. It’s possible that your son might still be resistant because of his experience with getting hit in the face with a ball. Something like that can be enough to knock kids (and adults) off their feet for a while. There won’t always be clear memories, but enough to make the emotion land heavily and act like a warning for similar future experiences.

Sometimes, with an experience which involves intense emotion, there can be a disconnect between the left and the right sides of the brain. It happens in all of us from time to time and it’s nothing to worry about. The right side of the brain is home to our big emotions and the left is the home of the words we use to make sense of that emotion. So, the left side is the very literal part of an experience (this happened that this happened then this happened …) but the right side of the brain is how we felt about what happened.

What can be helpful is to encourage your son to talk about his experience of getting hit in the face. You don’t have to solve anything, just listen. By putting word to his emotions, the big feelings will start to make sense and he will start to be able to see each situation as a new situation, without letting the past colour it. Here is an article that will help to explain this, as well as how to calm and anxious mind http://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety-in-children-calm-anxious-brain/.

If you suspect anxiety is driving his struggle with, it’s good to encourage him to get right back in there rather than taking too much time away. The risk is that if he stops playing, it will be all the harder to get back into. You don’t want to inadvertently send the message that the only way to feel safe is with avoidance. It’s also imporant that he learns that he is able to cope with things that might feel scary at first. One of the things that helps to overcome anxiety is actually exposure to the situation that triggers the anxiety. It takes time, but it’s about collecting enough evidence to feel safe again.

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Brian

Hi Karen, let me start by saying your recommendations in this article regarding anxiety worked to perfection! I walked through all of these steps with my son and he immediately connected with it. The day after I walked through it all with him he was back at it with baseball and feeling much more “normal”. He even said things during our talk that really show what is going on in their heads…such as “I thought it was just me”, and those type of things. Immediately normalizing it, explaining/naming it, and teaching them that it’s ok, and that they can actually control it really worked. Amazing how quickly it changed his mindset.

I figured I’d write back because of how well your strategies worked. The interesting thing is our son has always been the easy one, super mellow until the mono triggered the anxiety. Because he’s so mature and mellow you can talk and reason with him, and in this case that was critical. Our 6yr old daughter has been the opposite since she was little. She’s very hyper (since birth), and has enormous meltdown’s and temper tantrums. During them it’s almost like she’s possessed and you cannot reason with her when that switch flips in her. She physically seems like there is this rage in her and her body changes (not sure how to describe it, almost like the incredible Hulk is in her and trying to get out 🙂 ) She’s done it forever and we’ve tried almost everything to no avail. My wife and I are so frustrated with her given this has happened for years, and don’t know what else to do to try and help her. She’s an extremely energetic/hyper child that cannot sit still, and when she’s in her “good mood”, she’s super bubbly and funny. But when that switch flips she’s super aggressive on the other side and just loses it. She mostly acts out like that at home, and is generally very behaved in school according to all of our teachers over the years. When she is in her comfort zone at home is when it manifests most often. She’ll say nasty things to us during her fits and acts almost like she makes the rules. Hopefully this gives you an idea of her meltdowns.

She also has had anxiety/clinginess her whole life and not sure they are related. She was the one that the school had to call in preschool the first month because she “missed mommy”…she is extremely athletic but wouldn’t leave our side to go on the soccer field with the rest of the girls. Again, I’m not sure if they are related or not but she needs quite a bit of help and if I can find a way to get through to her like my son it may change her/our lives enormously. It’s occupied 99% of our family stress the last 5 years or so. Thanks for reading and for all of your help to everyone.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Brian – I’m so pleased the article was helpful for your son. In relation to your daughter, it’s quite common for anxiety to play out as aggression, so this might be something to think about. Here is an article that explains all about that as well as some strategies to try if you think this might be what’s going on. If you’re still worried, it might be worth getting an assessment from a doctor or a psychologist, just to make sure there’s nothing else going on. With kids there is always a good reason behind their behaviour – it’s just a matter of finding the reason and the right strategies to manage it. I hope this helps.

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Brian

Thanks Karen, don’t think there was any article linked in your reply as you suggested. Also, our son has reverted back a bit unfortunately so will have to keep working with him. So sad to see him like this and avoiding organized sports after being such a standout since t-ball. May just be too young to be in a serious travel baseball league as it’s not as “fun” as the town rec teams. Thanks!

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Hey Sigmund

Oh no I can see I left out the link. Here it is http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/. I’m sorry to hear that your son has reverted back a little. Anxiety can do this – sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. The thing to keep in mind is that you’re rewiring an anxious brain to be a little less overprotective. This can take a while but keep working with him. Getting mentally stronger is like getting physically stronger – it takes constant, steady practice over time to get there. Keep encouraging him to try brave things. The key is getting the balance right – you don’t want to push him too far to do things that feel so far outside his comfort zone, but you don’t want him to stay too safe either and to think that the only to feel okay is to avoid new things. You sound very tuned in to what he needs, which is wonderful, so trust your instinct on that one.

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Sarah

Hi There,

Thank you for your wonderful email. You have given me a lot to think about. My 7 year old daughter is constantly picking at her face and hands, causing herself to bleed on a regular basis. It is difficult because she appears super happy and confident. We ask her if there is anything that she is worried about and she says she is very happy and loves her family and friends. I am really concerned because she has all these marks over herself and i dont want her to hurt herself when she becomes a bit older. What are your thoughts? Thanks
Sarah

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Sarah,
The symptoms you are describing sound like they may have anxiety behind them. There is a condition called dermatillomania (also called compulsive skin picking) which may fit your symptoms. Here is some information about it http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12040508. If there’s anything in there that you’d like more info about, let me know.

It would first be worth a diagnosis with a dermatologist or a therapist to make sure this is what’s happening. Kids with anxiety are often happy, likeable, wonderful kids – they just have a brain that works hard to protect them and is quick to read threat when there isn’t any. Anxiety can come out in all different types of behaviours, and skin picking is one. It is certainly manageable, but she might need a little bit of outside support, such as cognitive behaviour therapy to give her the resources to manage this. The first step though is getting a diagnosis to make sure this is what you’re dealing with. This gives a roadmap to guide the best way to manage it. Try to find a dermatologist, doctor or therapist who has experience with this. Often, once the anxiety is under control, the skin picking will settle. Anything you can do at home though to help to build her skills to manage her anxiety will be great for her. Mindfulness and exercise and two things that have been proven over and over to be really powerful in building the brain against anxiety.

Here is a link to mindfulness exercise for children http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/.

An explanation of the research as to how mindfulness works is here http://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/.

Here is a link that explains a little more about strengthening an anxious brain http://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety-in-children-calm-anxious-brain/.

I hope this helps. All the best to you and your daughter. She sounds pretty wonderful.

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Christie

My 7 year daughter caught a stomach bug 2 times in one school year and has seemed to fight severe anxiety ever sense. She threw up at her grandparents home out of town so now she thinks this will happen every time and it does!!! When we travel, the anxiety gets worse. When she sees us packing, this gets her tummy and butterflies going so by about 3-4 in the morning, she wakes up throwing up. For the most part she feels better afterwards but sometimes it will continue throughout the day. This fear robs her of joy and peace as well as disrupts any family travel. This anxiety also manifests in her sleep. She may wake up 10 times after falling asleep each time and walks around the house emotional because she frustrated. This anxiety also manifests by her cutting her food intake down sometimes so she doesn’t get to full. She’s smart, hilarious and full of life. I can’t to try these techniques. I want my child back!!

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Hey Sigmund

Yes definitely try these for your gorgeous girl. It will really help her to understand how anxiety can be working to make her tummy feel sick. It’s incredible how one experience can leave a mark!

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Jayme

Life acts in mysterious ways and your website appeared to me linked from an article on a homeschool blog (of all things!)…right when I’m finally aware that my 11 yr old daughter has anxiety and needs us to help her! Thank goodness I’ve found this site as you are gifted in your explanations of anxiety and ways we can help our kiddos.

My daughter is gifted and we’ve always thought of her as highly cautious, averse to risk-taking, fearful of not getting it “right”. For the past year she has suddenly stopped wanting to do be a part of sleepovers. We didn’t do many anyway, but we moved a few years ago to be closer to family so that they could watch our kids while my husband and I reconnect on dates, day or overnighters. At first she was ok, but suddenly her foot was down and her tears were flowing at the thought of staying overnight. She has no problem going from sun up to sundown, but can’t bear the thought of staying overnight. She says if we stay there, too, she’d be ok. Thinking she’d prefer to stay in her element with her routines I offered the idea that they come to our house while we’re away, but this doesn’t solve the issue. When I ask for details she can’t name the reason, just says “I don’t know why, it just feels wrong and scary.” She loves all the activities my in-laws do with them, loves my in-laws who really are dreamy and so accepting and patient and caring. It really does seem unfounded. I have failed her and pushed her to try again last month. The afternoon I dropped her off was awful because she just couldn’t settle in, seemed to have her thoughts gripped by fear that she’d have to sleep there. But the next day she was really engaged and had a great time. Maybe just because she knew we were coming that evening? I don’t know.

My husband and I desperately want space from the kids here and there, not often, but a couple weekends a year. I don’t want my daughter to feel at fault that we can’t take time to ourselves, I can see that she worries about this. I hope I haven’t ruined this all yet. She finds it difficult or embarrassing to talk to me so I suggested we email each other which she likes.I plan on beginning conversations with her today guided by your phrasing. More than gaining our marital time back, I’m wanting to make sure that she begins to see that this isn’t her fault, that others struggle with anxiety too, and that she can begin to have more control on it as we continue to put our efforts there. She is otherwise such an independent, capable girl and that feeds so much of her confidence that I worry this will negatively impact her footing. As a mom of a daughter in this world, I so want her to be strong and confident!

Thank you for taking such care to put out all of this information and making it accessible to those of us looking for answers. Knowledge is power! I’ll be your best student as we begin a path toward better management. 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Jayme what a wonderful mom you are! I’m so pleased the information found its way to you. Anxiety is really difficult to understand and recognise if you’re not familiar with it. One of the confusing things about it is that it often has no identifiable trigger and the kids who get it are often really bright and very emotionally intelligent. Even with people they adore, anxiety can find its way in so what you are describing makes so much sense. I love the emailing idea – anything that helps them to feel okay about talking is gold. Something that is really powerful for anxiety is mindfulness. There is a ton of research showing how it strengthens the brain against anxiety. Here is a link (in case you haven’t read it yet) with ideas for mindfulness exercises for kids http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/. You have certainly NOT ruined anything! You have everything it takes to support her beautifully through this.

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Rush

Hi Karen, Please help us understand our 11 years old son situation.
We went on an overseas trip his past July for a month. We left my son with his older brother at their Aunt for two days. only. he told me that he vomited and ever since he has been complaining about strange feeling, can’t breath, not eating at all worried that those feeling would come back. We asked him if it was something hurting in his stomach, he said no, intestine, no, constipation, no.
when he is outside playing, no problem, no complains. Also, when me or his mom are not in the house, no complains.
We took him to his doctor, he couldn’t find anything wrong with him (stool all good). waiting on blood work this week.
After I read your article, I felt so much resemblance to my son’s case.
I appreciate your feedback.
Thank you so much for your article.
Rush B

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Rush if there is no medical reason for your son to feel like this, it’s very possible that it’s anxiety. Vomiting is something that can happen with anxiety and when it does, it can cause anxiety about the anxiety. The fear of it happening again can be enough to trigger the symptoms you are describing. Explain the way anxiety works as it is in the article. Here is another article that might help:

>> What to Say to Kids When they Are Anxious http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/

Hopefully this will help your son to find comfort.

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Tammy

I often read your site and you’ve been a great help in the past. My 16 year old daughter suffers from severe anxiety that started when she was 9 yrs. old. She learned to manage it through breathing, therapy and has managed so far to work through it without medication. The anxiety often revolves around school (social anxiety, test anxiety, anticipatory anxiety before school…) Her 11th grade school year begins tomorrow and she spent the later part of this evening pacing and panicking. She actually caused herself to be physically ill because she’s so worried about school tomorrow. It’s always bad at the beginning of the year and it usually gets better over time but she has constant anxiety provoking issues come up throughout the year due to her testing anxiety, etc. She’s got quite a few friends and is well liked, so I hate to see her miss out on the experience but lately she’s been asking about starting on-line school instead of going to school. She took a summer online math course through a community college and she did really well. She now has the idea that she could do that instead of high school and pursue her diploma that way. She says she’s so much happier when she doesn’t have to go to that school and wants to carve out her own path. My initial reaction is “no” but seeing her so stressed for so long and seeing how unstressed she was over the summer makes me wonder if I should consider it. I would love to know your thoughts. Thanks in advance.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

The beginning of the school year is often difficult for kids with anxiety. Even if they know the school and have a good bunch of friends, there are still new things to have to get used to. Having said that, it sounds as though her anxiety is fairly consistent throughout the year. It’s a difficult issue. The risk with avoidance is that it will lead to greater avoidance. The learning is that the only way to feel safe is to avoid the things that trigger her anxiety. This learning makes sense, but it becomes a problem if it takes away the opportunity to learn how to cope with the things that feel difficult. Anxiety tends to be something that needs to be managed, so learning how to cope will be really important moving forward.

Having said that, if she is really struggling and it is getting in the way of her grades, it might be worth exploring the option. Are you able to speak to her school counsellors? They will hopefully understand her and will be able to let you know if they think she can manage the school year with support, or whether it is worth exploring options. If it was my daughter, I would encourage school until it was clear that it was really getting in her way. Exercise, sleep and mindfulness are really important in managing anxiety. There’s also a ton of evidence that links gut health to anxiety, so a probiotic might also be helpful. A naturopath or pharmacist should be able to help you there. If you have exhausted all of the options, and she has tried everything to manage it but her anxiety is still causing her a lot of distress, I would certainly be open to exploring other options. I completely understand how difficult this decision is for you. Be guided by your daughter and your gut.

So to summarise … If you can encourage her to keep going to school, she will hopefully learn ways to cope that will hold her strong moving forward. Part of this plan should definitely involve at least exercise, enough sleep, and regular mindfulness. If it is causing her a lot of distress, see if you can talk to the school counsellor and see what they would advise in light of what they know about the school year and also what they know of your daughter. All the best with your decision. Whatever you decide, I don’t think either decision will be a wrong one.

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Tammy

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. After I posted this, she attended her first, second and third day and everything went very well. She actually had plans after school every day with different friends and I was hoping this might be the beginning of a great year. Unfortunately, however, she had a bit of a crisis today when she was called upon in class to answer a question and she froze up. She had to leave the class in tears and now I’m afraid her confidence is shaken again. It seems to be a constant battle. I hope she can get to a place where she won’t be so susceptible to her own anxiety.
Sleep is definitely an issue, and her schedule is upside down right now but I’ll work on getting her onto a better schedule and routine and hope that helps.

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