Helping Kids Fight Anxiety

By Dawn Van Osdell

There’s a lot of contradictory and downright erroneous parenting info floating around out there. We’re not afraid to tackle it head-on!

We’ve all felt it, and our kids have, too—the sick, uneasy feelings of worry, panic, and dread that are the hallmarks of anxiety. Anxiety is a normal human reaction to stressors that’s designed to protect us from danger. But if it kicks in when there is no real danger present, or if it spins out of control, it takes its toll, causing those afflicted to miss out on rewarding life experiences. It also has physical and emotional repercussions; long-term, anxiety can result in a compromised immune system, obesity, digestive problems, and insomnia, as well as an increased risk for heart disease and depression.

The effects of excessive worry over what might happen can be especially difficult for kids. They're often exposed to new situations, but they may not understand why they feel so uneasy about them. They also probably have no idea of the symptoms anxiety can cause—a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, and a sick feeling belly—let alone how to make them go away. No parent wants their child to feel hindered by uneasiness, but how do we help a little one who is especially anxiety prone, or reassure a worrier who’s too often stuck on the what-ifs? To find out, we talked to Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points. She sheds some light on three common myths related to anxiety in kids, and how we can help them protect themselves from letting their worries get out of hand.

Parents have a huge opportunity to teach even the most anxious child ways of dealing with the symptoms anxiety can cause to keep them from feeling undue distress, and to keep anxiety from putting a damper on their daily life.
— Alice Boyes

Myth #1: I have an anxious child. It’s part of her personality and she’s always going to be that way.

Truth: There is an element of anxiety that is temperament-related, says Boyes, who also maintains that it’s not always a bad thing since, "There are benefits to being cautious.” But research shows that as many as one in eight children struggle with anxiety that is deemed clinically excessive. 

“Parents have a huge opportunity to teach even the most anxious child ways of dealing with the symptoms anxiety can cause to keep them from feeling undue distress, and to keep anxiety from putting a damper on their daily life,” says Boyes. For instance, give your child’s anxiety a name—The Worry Monster, for example—to validate and demystify it and help your child feel that he has control over it. Gradually expose him to situations that provoke anxiety, rather than avoiding them, which can actually intensify fear; and practice how best to handle stressful situations, such as meeting a new friend, taking a test at school, or going to sleep with the lights off. A simple understanding of what anxiety is and how to alleviate its symptoms can help a child feel less anxious.

Myth #2: I can prevent my child from feeling anxiety by reassuring her that everything is fine and she has nothing to worry about.

Truth: We all want to protect our kids and make their worries go away but sadly, you can’t talk a child out of her anxious feelings, says Boyes; her brain won’t let her believe you. Furthermore, your insistent reassurances can backfire. “It’s simply not realistic to say that nothing bad will ever happen,” says Boyes. If you make an unfulfillable promise, your child may come to distrust you. Instead, reassure her that you’ve taken measures and precautions to keep her safe, and discuss how you would both cope if the worst-case scenario did come to pass. For instance, if a child is anxious about an upcoming spelling quiz, talk about what would happen if she got a bad grade. The actual outcome wouldn’t be nearly as bad as she imagines!

Just as important, acknowledge that the physical symptoms she feels are real and explain what they mean: Her sweaty palms are helping her body to cool itself; the butterflies in her belly are her digestive system turning off so that all her body’s resources can be sent to her muscles; and her rapid heartbeat is a result of breathing faster than necessary.

Myth #3: Kids are too young to meditate, practice mindfulness, or get any real stress relief from yoga—techniques recommended to adults suffering from anxiety.

Truth: “These activities provide skills that are exactly what an anxious child needs!” says Boyes. Physiological techniques, such as yoga and meditation, help to slow breathing, which reduces heart rate and calms the body. “They turn off the fight/flight/freeze response that anxiety produces and signal to the body that the current environment is safe,” says Boyes.

If you’re skeptical about getting your toddler or your tween into a downward-facing-dog pose, fear not: There are lots of fun, effective yoga poses that are relatable to kids. Have your child try a turtle pose, similar to child’s pose; or pretend she is a statue in a museum, standing stiff as a board and not moving a muscle. Another great technique to slow the breath is bubble blowing. “Either with real bubble water and a wand or by simply pretending she has a wand in hand, have your child slowly blow the biggest bubble she can create without allowing it to get so big that it pops,” says Boyes. That slow, controlled breath will quickly calm her racing heart.

Photograph by UrbanSitter