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How To Help A Child Struggling with Anxiety

Childhood anxiety is one of the most important mental health challenges of our time. One in five children will experience some kind of clinical-level anxiety by the time they reach adolescence, according to Danny Pine, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and one of the world’s top anxiety researchers. Pine says that for most kids, these feelings of worry won’t last, but for some, they will — especially if those children don’t get help.

What to Look for and What to Do

Here are six takeaways that all parents, caregivers and teachers can add to their anxiety toolkits, including information on how anxiety works, how parents can spot it and how to know when it’s time to get professional help.

1. Anxiety is a fear of the future and all its unpredictability.

“The main thing to know about anxiety is that it involves some level of perception about danger,” says Pine, and it thrives on unpredictability. The mind of an anxious child is often on the lookout for some future threat, locked in a state of exhausting vigilance.

We all have some of this hard-wired worry, because we need it. Pine says it’s one of the reasons we humans have managed to survive as long as we have. “Young children are naturally afraid of strangers. That’s an adaptive thing. They’re afraid of separation.”

2. Be on the lookout for the physical signs of anxiety.

The worried feelings that come with anxiety can seem hidden to everyone but the child trapped in the turbulence. That’s why it’s especially important for grown-ups to pay close attention to a child’s behavior and to look for the telltale signs of anxiety in children.

A stomachache, headache or vomiting can all signal anxious feelings, especially as a child gets closer to the source of the anxiety.

3. Before you try to reason with a panicked child, help the child relax.

“You’re not going to be able to move forward until you get them to calm down,” says Sesame’s Truglio. “Because if you can’t calm them down, you can’t even reach them. They’re not listening to your words because they can’t. Their body is taking over, so talking and shouting and saying, ‘You’re going to do this!’ is not very helpful.”

How do you break through this kind of panic? We recommend the Swiss Army knife in the mental health toolkit: deep belly breathing. Take a look:

4. Validate your child’s fear.

We heard from lots of parents who say they really struggle to know how to respond when their kids worry about unlikely things — especially if the fear is getting in the way of a busy daily routine, maybe a fun family outing or sleep.

Krystal Lewis, a colleague of Pine’s and a clinical researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health has language for parents who in the moment may feel frustrated by a child’s behavior:

” ‘I know that you’re feeling uncomfortable right now. I know these are scary feelings.’ You want to personify the anxiety, and so you can almost say, ‘You know what, we know that this is our worry brain.’ ”

Lewis says it’s crucial that children feel heard and respected. Even if you’re pretty certain aliens aren’t going to take over the planet tomorrow, if your child is worried about it, you need to let your child know that you respect that fear.

5. Help your child face their fears.

This is the fine line every parent, caregiver and teacher must walk with a child struggling with anxiety. You must respect the child’s fear, but that does not mean giving in to the fear.

“I think our initial reaction when we see an anxious child is to help them and protect them and not to push them or encourage them to do the things that they’re afraid of,” Pine says. But, he adds, one of the things researchers have learned from years of studying anxiety in children is “how important it is to face your fears.”

As to why it’s important to face your fears, Lewis says, “the more that you avoid or don’t do certain things, it’s almost implicitly teaching the child that there is a reason to be anxious or afraid if we’re not doing the things that are difficult. It’s sending this message that, ‘Oh well, there is potentially a dangerous component to this.’ ”

6. Build confidence with a baby-step plan.

Helping kids come up with a plan to face their fears is Lewis’ job. It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy, and a big part of that is exposure therapy.

Lewis says she once worked with an 8-year-old who was terrified of vomiting.

“We did a lot of practice, which included buying vomit spray off Amazon and vomit-flavored jelly beans,” she recalls. “We listened to all types of fun vomit sounds using YouTube video. We did a lot of practicing up to the point where we created fake vomit, and we were in the bathroom and just pretending to vomit.”

And Lewis says that baby step after baby step, the girl made important progress.

Lewis says parents can use rewards to celebrate their kids when they make progress — think small but meaningful rewards like letting your child pick dinner that night or the movie for family movie night.

If you feel overwhelmed by your child’s anxiety, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help — again, from your family’s pediatrician or from a cognitive behavioral therapist. Because the good news is that anxiety is not only incredibly common but also treatable.

Excerpted from “How To Help A Child Struggling With Anxiety” on NPR. Read the full article for more details on each of the six take-aways. Pine and Lewis also recommend a handful of books on how to identify and manage childhood anxiety.

This story was adapted from a Life Kit podcast. You can listen to this podcast episode, hosted by Anya Kamenetz and Cory Turner:

Source: NPR | How To Help A Child Struggling With Anxiety, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/23/772789491/how-to-help-a-child-struggling-with-anxiety | © 2020 npr

Do you need someone to talk to? CHC can help.  We invite you to call or email our Clinical Services Coordinators at 650.688.3625 or careteam@chconline.org to set up a free 30-minute consultation.

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