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Managing Anxiety: From Young Kids to Teens

  • Category: General Health, Living Well, Parenting
  • Posted on:
  • Written By: Dr. Amy Henke and Dr. Erin Reuther Pediatric Psychologists, Children's Hospital New Orleans
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Children experience anxiety in a number of different ways, but it’s not always a bad thing. While a little anxiety helps your kids get their homework done on time, too much anxiety can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

A child might explain it as a feeling of dread, panic, sadness or fear. They might talk about it in terms of physical symptoms like sweaty palms, trembling, butterflies in their tummy or a fast heartbeat. It can prevent kids from going to school or joining a fun game with their peers. Later in life, it can prevent teens from applying for a part time job, venturing away from home for college or asking for an extension from a professor for an assignment.

How do you know when anxiety is a problem?

When anxiety is persistent, it impacts multiple areas of a child’s life and interferes significantly with the child reaching age-appropriate goals. This is the time you may consider treatment from a professional. If the anxiety gets worse over time, rather than better, it may also be time to seek advice.

When a child is not able to do the things that most kids do at a specific age due to crippling anxiety, the next step is to seek help. While it is normal for a 5-year-old child to need a parent to walk them into school in the first day, a 15-year-old would not be expected to need that same support.

What is the treatment for anxiety?

According to the CDC, more than 7% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety.

Parents should look for treatment providers who use evidence-based interventions, meaning those that have been proven to be effective by scientific studies comparing different treatments. Getting treatment early can help avoid anxiety later in life. One example of an evidence-based treatment for anxiety is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Many treatments for anxiety involve teaching coping strategies for managing anxiety in moment, using breathing techniques, comfort strategies, and safety reminders. We also teach children to use the thinking part of their brain to “talk back” to anxiety and challenge worries and fears.

Children and teens can learn to approach anxiety situations in small steps to build their confidence and skills. With time and support, they learn that they can be calm in situations they were previously afraid of. Most anxiety is very treatable, and children can get back to activities and fully participating in life.

What can parents do to help their children and teens with anxiety?

When faced with this diagnosis, parents can take several steps to ensure the best treatment.

First, learn to manage your own emotions. It’s important to focus on your own ability to calm down before being able to help your child. If they sense anxiety in their parents, then it feeds their anxiety as well.

Parents should also create emotional safety for the child. Be consistently supportive of their needs, making them feel secure. This will help to soothe those anxious feelings. An important step that parents can take is to validate their child’s feelings. Do not pretend the problem does not exist. When they can recognize those feelings, they can then learn to develop the ability to accept them and eventually overcome them.

Finally, practice coping with anxiety with your child while also holding children to age-appropriate expectations. It is possible to help a child overcome their anxious patterns. With patience, practice, and persistence, change is possible. The more times you practice a coping technique with a child, the more you are reinforcing a new brain pathway. Some practical strategies involve deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles, wrapping yourself in a blanket or hugging a loved one. When parents believe children can do something, it builds their confidence that they can do it too.

Click here to learn more about diagnosing and treating anxiety in children, and to learn more about the Behavioral Health Center at Children's Hospital.