Babble is partnering with PACER Center to help parents better understand and navigate the needs of children with mental health and behavior issues. This month we’re talking about how to help your young child cope with their anxiety.
Sarah was a tense, fussy baby right from the start, who always seemed to be either crying or on the verge of tears. Though her mother, Jean, tried tirelessly to calm her down, her efforts rarely worked when Sarah was in the middle of a meltdown.
Sometimes, Sarah would fall asleep for naps after a long crying jag, but even then she wouldn’t sleep for long.
Things grew worse on the few occasions when Jean attempted to leave the house without Sarah. After receiving four calls from the babysitter one afternoon while Jean was out grocery shopping, she realized that leaving Sarah with others just wasn’t an option. It’s probably just a phase, an exhausted Jean told herself. Many babies are fussy, but they eventually grow out of it.
Sarah grew into an even more anxious toddler, who couldn’t participate in a playgroup unless Jean was in the same room. By age four, Sarah began peppering her mother with a steady stream of never-ending questions that felt different to Jean than the typical “Mommy, why?” period her son Andrew had gone through. Sarah’s questions seemed to stem from fear. Jean was annoyed and frustrated by Sarah’s unrelenting worries about what would happen next, what was for lunch (asked as soon as breakfast was complete), and what she was doing.
By age five, Sarah had become a real worrier. Her kindergarten teacher reported that Sarah’s constant questioning about the future got in the way of her functioning in the present.
Sarah’s anxieties impacted nearly all aspects of her life: They got in the way of her learning; they caused her to struggle making and keeping friends. Even her own family was walking on eggshells around her — they shrank from doing anything that might worry or upset her.
Soon, Sarah developed physical symptoms, too. Her eyes would get big, her heart would race, and she’d get fidgety. She experienced headaches and stomachaches. She was often tired but had problems sleeping.
Desperate to help her daughter, Jean shared her concerns with Sarah’s pediatrician, who suggested after a quick screening that a child and adolescent psychiatrist assess Sarah. The doctor diagnosed Sarah with an anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by pervasive worry and distress about everyday things.
Jean was relieved to understand why Sarah behaved the way she did, but she was at a loss as to how she could help her daughter. To the world, Sarah looked like a typical, smart, cute child. She had never caused anyone trouble. How could Jean convey to others that though Sarah’s disability was an invisible one, it was very real? How could she help Sarah feel better?
Here are some tips to help your child — or any child — cope with anxiety:
1. Learn as much as you can about your child’s specific disability.
The more you know, the better informed you will be about how to help your child. There is more than one type of anxiety disorder.
2. Help your child get relief.
Constant worrying is exhausting. Let your child know that you are on her side and that you will do all that you can to help things get better. Name your child’s feeling and then give support. You might say, “I see you are worried (scared, upset). You are safe.”
You can also prompt your child to use a strategy to help them calm down and join with them in doing it. For example: “Let’s close our eyes and take a deep breath together.” An anxious child often cannot remember what else to do right away, or needs someone to do it with them. Encourage them to talk about what is making them anxious: “Can you tell me about it?” or “Let’s talk about what is worrying you right now.”
3. Explore a variety of treatment options.
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Find professionals who can work with your family: For a younger child, a play therapist might incorporate physical movement, relaxation, guided imagery and “talk therapy” to help decrease anxiety. Medications to manage the symptoms may also be an option.
4. Be your child’s advocate.
Find a way to explain to the other adults in your child’s life how her daily issues affect her functioning. Speak with your child’s teacher about considering supports to help your child succeed. Sometimes children with anxiety benefit from a 504 Plan or Special Education evaluation.
5. Help your child understand that they have a disability, but that their disability does not have them.
Along with relieving the symptoms of anxiety, look for ways to remind your child they have strengths as well. Find activities where they can succeed, and stay positive and hopeful.
PACER Center’s Children’s Mental Health Project has excellent resources for parents to access at PACER.org/cmh/
Some more PACER resources to consider:
When should parents be concerned about their child’s behavior?