How to help an anxious child
It’s perfectly normal for kids to feel some level of anxiety, but it can be tricky to know what they will grow out of and what is actually a problem. We talked to Elizabeth Dupont Spencer, author of “The Anxiety Cure for Kids: A Guide for Parents and Children,” about how to know if your child has an anxiety problem and what you can do to foster a healthier and less anxious home.
Recognizing the signs
Spencer says the key to recognizing the difference between normal acute anxiety and something that’s really a problem is knowing what is normal for your child’s age. “You think about the separation anxiety that a kid might have as a toddler, which is normal anxiety and a sign that they are developing a healthy relationship with their primary caregiver,” Spencer says. “But when you have a kid who’s experiencing anxiety that’s not typical of that stage of development, or it’s an inconsolable amount of anxiety even if it is a normal timeframe, then it’s important for parents to look into it.”
Regardless of age, Spencer says the common theme in child anxiety is that the focus has become the anxiety problem and not the other things going on in his or her life.
If your child’s teacher says your child might have a problem, really listen. Spencer says day care workers and teachers are often the first to recognize that a child has an anxiety problem because they have a good sense of what’s normal and what’s not. Follow up their concerns with your pediatrician.
What you can do
Spencer says the best way to help your child overcome anxiety is to play to his or her strengths. “If your child loves to draw, encourage him or her to draw what he or she feels anxious about. If he or she likes to write, encourage him or her to write it out,” she says. Playacting with dolls or stuffed animals is another way for you and your child to work through his or her anxiety. “When your child is calm and not feeling anxious, come up with some strategies that might be helpful,” Spencer recommends.
Kids model their parents’ behavior, so something you can do that will subliminally lower your child’s anxiety levels is to demonstrate flexible coping strategies. “Show that it’s OK to have things not quite go the way you expected and to have uncertainty in life,” Spencer says. The root of anxiety is often a fear of something that could happen, so when your child sees you roll with the punches, he or she will grow up doing the same.
When to consider therapy or medication
If you’ve tried these tactics and your child’s anxiety is still interfering with his or her life — especially to the point where it keeps him or her from school — it’s time to consider professional help. “Many parents shy away from child therapy because they don’t want their child to have a label,” Spencer says. Her advice: Get over it. The problem will still be there, whether you label it or not. “Anxiety disorders in children are very treatable,” she says.
Before considering medication, try therapy. Whether you meet with a therapist yourself, to get some ideas about what you can do at home, or take your child for treatment, it can help. Medication should be a last resort to discuss with your pediatrician, but shouldn’t be ruled out. “Therapy and medication are both equally effective in treating anxiety, but since most parents would of course prefer for their child not to take medication, I think trying therapy first is a good idea,” Spencer says.
Just because your child has anxious tendencies now doesn’t mean he or she will have them for life. Anxiety is very treatable, and will be a thing of the past before you know it.
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