How to help your child deal with anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues around the word. According to the charity Mental Health Matters, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) affects approximately 6.8 million adults or 3.1% of the US population and between 2-5% of the UK population.

It’s no wonder that anxiety disorders have become a focus of mental health professionals as we watch these statistics grow. What is even more concerning is the number of children and adolescents who, like many other family members, are also living with anxiety disorders. For a child or adolescent struggling with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can worsen over time. These feelings begin to interfere with daily activities such as school, friends, family, sports, and activities.

The most common forms of anxiety experienced by children and teens are GAD, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Separation anxiety is the most prevalent in preschool or early grade school and social anxiety tends to show up around puberty.

What are common anxiety warning signs?

Many parents are unaware that their child is experiencing anxiety problems and often miss the warning signs that an issue is developing. Anxiety can be considered a serious issue when it begins to interfere with daily activity. If parents notice any of the following signs and symptoms, it might be time to seek professional help:

  • Physical symptoms like a headache, stomach ache, sleeplessness and racing heart
  • Your child often expresses that he or she is afraid when there is no imminent danger
  • Behavior changes such as constant agitation, restlessness, and worry that seems extreme
  • Going into most situations thinking “what if” and making decisions that are based in fear
  • School troubles, such as starting and completing school work, avoiding new situations, perfectionistic tendencies.

So how does a parent best support their child who is struggling with anxiety?

The following suggestions might be a good place to start if you feel that your child’s anxiety has started to impact their lives:

  1. Don’t avoid the situations that are making them anxious. Allowing your child to avoid the anxiety-provoking situations can make it even worse and exacerbate the problem. Help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can.
  2. Teach them breathing exercises. Basic in-through-the-nose, out-through-the-mouth breathing is an easy way to teach children that they can slow their body down and minimise their anxiety by breathing.
  3. Make sure they have time in their day to relax. Provide them with unstructured down time each day to recharge and unpack their anxiety.
  4. Parents should model a healthy way of handling their own stress and anxiety. By modeling calmness and self-care, our children will learn that they can gain skills to manage their own anxiety.
  5. Try to avoid leading questions. If they are already worried about an upcoming event, don’t lead into the question with “Are you anxious or worried about…?”
  6. Stay positive. Offer reassurance and comfort and help your child focus on the positive parts of their day.