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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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764 Comments

Martin

Hi, we are going through this with my daughter, it has been going on for nearly two years. She has just turned 12. She has always been quite confident, a hard worker at school she always works hard and achieves. If anything she always sets the bar very high for herself. Daytime is usually happy and fine, she is enjoying her first year of high school and has lots of friends and apart from the obvious changes suddenly being in an environment of older teens as well as growing and changing herself she seems happy. She has hit the point where she confides in my wife more than me but there doesn’t seem to be anything outside of our home and family life that is upsetting her. In February 2015 she had a run of colds and flu, she started developing bad headaches and migraines. At one point she was sick and started sleeping in our bed with my wife. The headaches became more of a problem and she spent more time in our bed while I slept in hers. This started to have an effect on the family and also my work. She was off school for nearly two months, we had seen specialists, one doctor basically told her to buck up and get on with it !! great!! We started seeing an osteopath who found she had slightly exaggerated bone growth in one of her vertebrae at the top of her neck, nothing major but it was possibly causing muscles in her neck to tense and in particular muscles that wrapped over the top of the head which is often where she complained the headaches began. We started to think it was some kind of tenseness brought on by stress which then caused the headaches and that is was just her body growing that was making it happen more now. So over time and treatments of massage she began to control the headaches a little more. By the summer she was more in control but still sleeping in our bed. Every time we tried to settle her back to her room it caused problems and she wouldn’t sleep and was tearful. If she got very upset it would trigger a migraine, so we were trapped, we wanted her in her own room but couldn’t get her to without getting upset and having a migraine. By christmas 2015 we decided to make efforts to encourage her back to her bed and redecorated her room and got her a nice new grown up bed, she loved it and was very excited. It had a pull out second bed that my wife could sleep on and then move back to our room. Every time she tried, my daughter would stir or wake up, since then she has developed night time routines that can take longer and longer to finish, she will sit on the edge of the bed with my wife trying to sleep next to her on the pull out mattress and she will cry for her. She wants to have the light on to sort out her hair before laying down, she has to arrange cushions, there are a few routines we have broken and after tantrums it has passed and she has moved on. But she can get inventive and suddenly something simple becomes a routine. We have tried to see a specialist therapist but we have no family near us and it is very difficult to arrange time to see her as she wants to see us first. We are currently still in this situation, some nights go quite well and she settles but it has affected our whole lives, everyone has to be ready for bed by 8pm, including me if I want a bath, as the bathroom is next to her room. I then try to catch up work in my office, but my wife and I have no time together to talk about our day or even how we’re going to handle this. My son is getting increasingly short patience with his sister, as she keeps him awake too. Most nights or at least alternate nights we have a bad episode and despite being in bed my wife, daughter and son will not get to sleep until 11pm or even midnight. So everyone is run down, exhausted, grumpy. My wife has been ill over the last few weeks and lack of sleep has hindered her recovery.
We are very supportive to our kids, we help them with their homework, we read to them every night and have tried to do the very best we can through this situation.
I have read through many stories on this topic and a lot of people seem to at least be able to settle their children enough to leave the room, this would be an absolute gift for us at the moment.
Any thoughts or suggestions would be extremely welcome.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Martin, first of all I want to say that you and your wife sound like wonderful parents – supportive and empathic and just what your daughter needs. I completely understand why her bedtime routine needs to be sorted out though. It sounds as though it is causing a bit of disruption for the whole family, and I imagine it also isn’t the way your daughter wants her night-times to run.

Here is an article which I think might have a useful strategy for you http://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/. Take a look at number 6, the stepladder. This is a gentle way of introducing a new behaviour which is your case, would be getting your daughter to fall asleep in her own bed on her own. It’s really important that this isn’t rushed. It sounds like the bedtime issues have been there for a while, so they will take a while to let go of. One of the first things to move towards is not being there when she falls asleep, and I can see this something that’s causing trouble at the moment. The problem with being there when she falls asleep is that when she moves between cycles of sleep and gently stirs (as we all do) it can panic her to find that she is on her own, when there was someone there when she fell asleep. So – work through the stepladder with her. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as she is on board.

It will be important to stick to the same bed time each night so her body knows when to expect it. At 12, she is just starting to enter adolescence. Over the next little while, you might notice that she wants to stay up later. This is really normal for adolescence. Their sleep cycles start to change. The sleep hormone (the hormone the tells your body it’s time to start getting sleepy) doesn’t release until about 2 hours later than it does in the rest of us, so they tend not to get sleepy until 9, 10, 11 pm. It may be that 8pm is a little too early for her. Her body just might not be ready to settle then, so the battle will be harder because her brain will be telling her that it’s not time to settle yet. If you get a sense that that might be causing some trouble, if you can, try letting her stay up a little later (make it part of the deal with the stepladder).

Another thing to add to her bedtime routine is mindfulness. If she can do ten minutes of this before bed as part of her bedtime routine, it will be strengthening her brain against anxiety (here is an article that explains how that works http://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/) and helping her to settle. There are apps that can help with this. Smiling Mind is one. Smiling Mind was just used in a trial in Australian schools with some great results. Here is a link to the app https://smilingmind.com.au/smiling-mind-app/.

Also, have a look at 2,3,4 and 9 (especially 4 – you can use it as part of the stepladder) in this article http://www.heysigmund.com/getting-kids-to-go-to-sleep-and-stay-asleep/.

I know how disruptive to everyone bedtime struggles can be. I hope these are able to help your family.

Reply
Joanna

Hi Martin,

I have a 10 year old daughter who has just started this type of behaviour over the last two months. I have just began sessions with a child psychologist for her. I have been lost at what to do. She aswell has lots of friends, is in a few sports which she is extremely good at, most times achieving special achievement trophies etc, all the things that would make a child happy and boost their confidence, she’s an SRC at school, academically aswell she puts lots of effort in and aswell sets her targets very high. She does lots of socialising, and definatley nothing outside the family home upsetting her. The way it all started is she was planned to sleep over at a very close friends of ours, their daughter us 10 and have been best friends for years. I got a call from the mother saying she wasn’t feeling well in the stomach and wanted to come home, aswell she was crying. We took her home and the next day during the day was happy and wanted to return to her friends house saying she wanted to stay the night again. Come to the afternoon and we got a call she was crying again with pains in the stomach. So we picked her up and took her home. The following week at school I was calked 3 times saying she was unwell in the stomach shaking and crying, I took her to the doctors they did a blood test, urine test and aswell a stomach ultrasound. Everything returned as normal. The doctor wrote a mental health plan and sent it off to the psychologist. Since then she can’t hear any noise at night, complains daily of sore head and stomach and tells me she can’t get a song out of her head and worries ahead about everything, she has to be always in close contact with myself and aswell as I write this is in my bed, complaining that she can’t sleep and her mind is over thinking. The whole house has to go onto lock down by a certain time because she can’t sleep with one ounce of noise. She continues to have the school call me and can’t focus in class as she has feelings of worry for lots of different things which she herself can’t explain. – she constantly tells me that she can’t get songs out of her head that make her feel sad. And she cries a lot all the time. I’m at a loss with what to do, she’s changing slowly becoming more withdrawn and worries about catch ups and socialising with her friends like she doesn’t want to. I have been told she may suffer anxiety, could you advise of anything you have found helpful for your daughter the rearranging of the room sounded great besides we are living at my brothers ATM and we are unable to do this, she also sleeps in a room with my other younger daughter and can’t sleep near her tells us that she makes too much noise when she’s sleeping. If there’s anything you know that could help would be great anything you may have found out. It hasn’t been two years for us and we are feeling the affects. Kindest regards Joanna

Reply
MCR

Of course this only works when there is no real threat, otherwise, the amygdala will remain active.

Reply
Valerie

My happy-go-lucky 5 year daughter LOVED going to school…until she fell going up the stairs to the slide on the playground last monday. She scrapped her shin, it bled, she cried & went to the nurse for a bandage. She wouldn’t let us remove the giant bandage to access the damage because it would hurt to pull off her skin due to the stickiness of the band-aid. That night she talked about not wanting to go to school the next day for fear it will hurt when she runs. I ignored her pleas and told her she was going to school no matter what. The next morning she was so anxious, her tummy was hurting and she started to panic so we let her stay home. I feel like that was a huge mistake. she was fine once she knew she was staying home. That night again she worried about going to school the next day. Wednesday morning came around and was a repeat of the morning before. But we made her go to school. Her concerns are this…I don’t want people to ask me if I’m ok (because of the tears in her eyes for having to be at school), she’s worried about falling again & she doesn’t want to participate in PE. We asked the PE teacher to allow her to sit out (again, probably another mistake). Thursday came & another repeat of every morning thus far. This time she said her tummy felt sick & not anxious like it did the other days so I worried she could have a tummy bug (tis the season) so I let her stay home. But as soon as she knew she wasn’t going to school, she was fine. Friday came, another episode, but we made her go to school. Everyday she comes home she says her days have been good. We just finished the weekend where she did great at home & anywhere we went. This morning came & she had a more severe reaction then before doubling over saying her belly hurts & saying “I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this”. I’ve tried reaching out to the counselor but haven’t heard back. I’m just not sure how I should be handling this at home. Any advice would be great!

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

It can be so difficult to know what to do when our little people seem to be not well, and are struggling to make it to school. It’s really understandable that your daughter is worried about going back to school. It might take her time to feel okay about going back, and that’s okay. Talk with her about her anxiety so that she can have some understanding of what is causing her sick tummy and her worries. Let her know that it’s really normal for people to be worried about going back into a situation in which they have previously themselves. If you can talk to her about a time this happened for you, that would also be reassuring for her.

She’s still young and she’s still understanding her big feelings, and how to manage them when they happen. If you can start to explain that just because she feels scared, and is thinking scary thoughts (I might hurt myself again), she can act brave. Thoughts, feelings and behaviour don’t have to match. This is an important lesson for kids to learn, and it can take a while for them to understand. Let her know that when she thinks she can’t do it, it’s the ‘fierce warrior’ part of her brain trying to protect her, even though she doesn’t need protecting. When she feels this, strong deep breathing is a way to be the boss of her worried brain again and stop it from feeling so anxious (it actually calms the nervous system and will start to neutralise her fight or flight response). You might need to encourage her to practice her strong, deep breathing when she is calm so she can find it easier to do when she is anxious. Here is another article that might help http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/.

Reply
Heather

My 13 yr old son keeps telling me almost everyday that he feels sick. I think it’s anxiety but he doesn’t because he said it happens when he doesn’t feel anxious. I told him people can still have anxiety when they have nothing to be anxious about. He gets nauseous and dizzy and shaky a lot, so I don’t know but it’s got to be anxiety, right? He also has headaches often. He thinks he needs to eat something everytime but most of the time he already has.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Heather the symptoms you are describing certainly sound like anxiety. Anxiety can feel so strong when it hits, that it can be hard to believe it happens for no reason – that’s one of the awful things about anxiety. If your son feels as though eating something is right for him, this is a great thing – it means that he may have found a way to self-soothe and feel better, even if he doesn’t see it that way. Here is an article specifically for teens with anxiety http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-teens/. It helps to explain what’s happening in their brains and what they can do to help protect themselves against anxiety. Hope it helps.

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