For children of any age, anxiety can strike without warning. Typically, children may experience symptoms of anxiety when in new situations or when your child is worried they might be separated from you, like when starting kindergarten. Routine visits to medical professionals, drop-offs at school or other changes to your child’s daily routine can trigger feelings of anxiety. Despite your best efforts to prepare your child for a new situation, they may still experience mild, moderate or even severe anxiety in these circumstances. Every child will show signs of anxiety in different ways, but typical symptoms may include sweaty palms, stomach pain, headache or behaviors such as withdrawal, crying, nail-biting, clinging to you or angry outbursts. No matter the situation that triggered your child’s anxiety, there are strategies you can use to help them work through this feeling.
The first step in addressing anxiety with your child is to help them notice the changes in their body and behavior. As gently as possible, point out to your child the behaviors you are observing and ask if they notice them, too. For example, if your child begins to bite their nails when they are nervous, try the following phrase: “I see you are biting your nails. Did you notice that?” By addressing the behavior in a neutral way, you are helping them pay attention to how their body responds to stress. Although you may feel frustrated by the behavior, don’t discipline your child, as this can cause feelings of shame and make them feel worse.
Next, help your child understand that feelings of anxiety are normal and that everyone feels anxious. Share how some situations in your life make you feel stressed or anxious. For example, you could say, “I get butterflies in my stomach when I have to talk to new people.” Help your child understand there is nothing wrong with feeling worried or anxious.
Once you’ve helped your child recognize anxiety and know that everyone feels anxious at times, you can now help your child learn to relax. First, talk with your child about what is making them feel anxious and try to reduce those fears verbally. For example, your child may become agitated in a doctor’s waiting room fearing they will receive a shot. Talking with your child about what is bothering them will help clarify what the problem is and it will give you the opportunity to provide accurate information about what they can expect.
If your child continues to have anxiety symptoms, teach them stress reduction strategies, including slow breathing exercises, guided imagery of their favorite place to be, and reassuring them with your physical presence. Don’t force your child to do something that’s causing them unusually high fear. Instead, encourage your child to take small steps to overcome their anxiety over time.