Anxiety in Childhood: What parents need to know for supporting their anxious child

In today’s fast-paced and demanding world, anxiety has become a common challenge for children, and it can be difficult for parents to know how to help. From worries about school performance to social pressures, it can be overwhelming for young minds to navigate their emotions. However, the good news is that resilience can be developed, helping anxious children not only cope with their worries but also build inner strength. Keep reading as we explore how this can be accomplished. 

Child helping his parents cook a meal in the kitchen

Over the last several years, we have seen an unprecedented increase in childhood anxiety. 

Numerous studies, including the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report and those done by The World Health Organization paint a disheartening picture. 20.5% of youth worldwide struggle with anxiety symptoms.

It all boils down to one thing, we’re experiencing a global crisis when it comes to child and adolescent mental health.

What is Anxiety?

First, let’s talk about what anxiety is. Anxiety is a normal and natural emotion that everyone experiences. It serves as a protective mechanism that prepares us to face potential threats or dangers. Think about what would happen if you saw a scary looking snake or were walking by a big cliff and didn’t have anxiety! In a way, anxiety serves as our body’s natural fire alarm. It alerts us to danger and therefore guides us to make safe decisions. Anxiety is a hard-wired, evolutionary response that helps us. 

What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children?

Sometimes, though, a child’s “fire alarm” (aka their amygdala) is too sensitive. The body may send out a call for danger when there really is no threat to safety. For example, for some children, their fire alarm may go-off before doing a class presentation at school, or before their parents leave them with a babysitter for a night out. Additionally, a child’s fire alarm may become triggered at the mention of a needle or thinking about the future. 

Because of this, anxiety can become overwhelming for some children, and interfere with their daily lives. Anxious children may constantly worry about things that others may perceive as trivial or unlikely to happen. They may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or difficulty sleeping. These physical symptoms can be a result of anxiety activating their fight-or-flight mode. It is important to note that anxiety can manifest differently in each child, and some may exhibit behaviors such as avoidance or clinginess.

How to Know if Your Child May Need Help With Their Anxiety

Recognizing when a child may need help with anxiety is crucial for early intervention and support. While occasional worries are normal, persistent and excessive anxiety can significantly impact a child’s well-being and development. Here are some signs that may indicate a child needs help with anxiety:

1. Physical symptoms: Anxious children may complain of frequent headaches, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms that have no apparent medical cause.

2. Avoidance behaviors: Children with anxiety may avoid certain situations or activities that trigger their worries. This can include social events, school activities, or even leaving the house.

3. Sleep disturbances: Anxiety can disrupt a child’s sleep patterns, leading to difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or frequent nightmares.

4. Poor academic performance: Anxiety can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and perform well in school. They may struggle with completing assignments, participating in class, or taking tests.

5. Changes in behavior: Anxious children may exhibit changes in behavior, such as increased irritability, restlessness, or clinginess. They may also become more withdrawn or seek excessive reassurance.

If you notice any of these signs in your child, it may be time to seek professional help. A qualified and licensed mental health professional can assess a child’s symptoms and help determine whether treatment is necessary and could benefit the child.

An anxious child covering her ears with her hands

Parenting and Childhood Anxiety

A tendency towards anxiety could possibly be built into some kids’ temperaments–some are more inhibited, some more risk-seeking. But even with a predisposition to being anxious, not all children go on to have clinically significant anxiety. Rather, certain factors in the child’s environment can exacerbate a child’s anxiety. 

The development and maintenance of anxiety in children involves the family system. That is, certain parenting behaviors and family dynamics can reinforce a child’s anxious behaviors. It may sound counterintuitive, but many actions parents take to diminish their child’s anxiety in the short-term actually contribute to increased anxiety, even though of course that isn’t the intent. This is because children need practice directly facing situations they are afraid of in order to recalibrate their personal fire alarms. When a parent, motivated by protection and love, habitually attempts to help a child avoid feeling anxious altogether, this can create a lack of opportunities for children to build resilience and to better cope with anxiety.

Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE): A Groundbreaking Treatment Option For Childhood Anxiety

As the prevalence of childhood anxiety increases, so too do efforts to provide quality, evidence-based care that is both accessible and effective. One such treatment is Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE). SPACE is a groundbreaking parent-based treatment program for children and adolescents with anxiety, OCD, and related struggles. This empirically proven approach for managing childhood anxiety teaches parents how to help their child develop effective coping skills. With strategies learned from Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions, parents and caregivers can empower children to embrace their inner strength and thrive in the face of anxiety.

Seeking appropriate treatment for your child’s anxiety is critical. Left untreated, childhood anxiety is associated with increased difficulties at school, reduced self-esteem, and somatic symptoms like stomach aches. And childhood anxiety doesn’t tend to just go away on its own. Rather, unaddressed anxiety typically gets more severe and chronic.

The good news: childhood anxiety is the most treatable condition within the field of mental health. The response rates to evidence-based treatment, including SPACE, are excellent. 

Finding An Anxiety Treatment The Is Right For Your Child

The clinicians at Upshur Bren Psychology Group are proud to offer a suite of treatment options for addressing childhood anxiety, including individual and group SPACE programs for parents.  Click here to schedule a complementary 15 minute assessment call to get our customized recommendation of the best treatment plan for your unique child.

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