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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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712 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

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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.

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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.

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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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