Fears and worries are part of life. Strong emotional reactions in children may present at different stages of development. Toddlers, for example, often go through a phase of separation anxiety, or begin having irrational fears when imaginative play begins. These are all signs of typical development, but how do you know when fears and worries become extreme or when to seek help?
The short answer: when these thoughts and feelings begin interfering with home life, play, socialization, or academic success.
Some typical indicators that a child may be struggling with elevated level of anxiety include:
Difficulty sleeping or engaging in quiet time activities
Inability to overcome separation anxiety when parents are away
Extreme emotions relating to a specific situation (e.g. going to the doctor, or fears and phobias such as bugs or getting hurt)
Extreme emotions relating specifically to social situations (e.g. school, birthday parties, or places where they will be meeting new people)
Frequent complaints of stomach aches, feeling dizzy, trouble breathing, or feeling shaky and/or sweaty.
Children in general need guidance and modeling to help them use the rational, or higher level parts, of their brain to manage emotions. (This is why toddlers throw tantrums. Their brains are not developed enough yet to process their big feelings.) However, if your child is unable to process their fears and worries even with guidance, it might be time to consult your physician or a child psychologist.
Ways to Support Your Child:
The very first step in supporting your child is understanding their diagnosis. Anxiety is driven by the most primitive parts of our brain that drive us to fight, flee, feed ourselves, and f... procreate. When this part of our brain is engaged, it can quite literally turn off the rational, upper parts of our brain making it very difficult to manage emotions. The good news is that there are great strategies to use that will help your child re-engage the rational parts of their brain to process their fears and worries.
We highly recommend the book "The Whole Brain Child" by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. The book has great information and resources about how to talk to your children to help them engage with the rational part of their brain to alleviate fears and worries.
Strategies to Support Your Child:
Encourage your student to move! Exercise releases endorphins that help your body relax. This helps the upper and lower parts of your brain to communicate with each other.
Discuss your child's brain with them to help them understand that fears and worries are normal for everyone.
Don't avoid situations just because they might make a child feel anxious. The goal is to manage anxiety, not eliminate it.
Try to keep the anticipatory period short. When we fear things, it is often because they are "unknown." Don't give your child a long period of time to think about the situation before it happens. (It can take time to strike a balance here between over-anticipating and adequately preparing!)
Listen to your child explain their fears and worries and then empathize with them. Use statements such as, "That does sound very scary, I see you're feeling worried." Be sure to acknowledge their feelings without giving power to the emotion itself.
Do not diminish your child's feelings, even if they seem irrational. Anxiety often IS irrational, but it feels very real.
Engage your child's senses. Ask them to describe what the see, hear, feel, and smell, then use these to help them identify that they are in a safe environment.
Give your child a long, tight hug. Physical contact and pressure often helps anxiety. Take a deep breath during your hug. Your body relaxing will send signals to their body to do the same.
There are also lots of great children's book about anxiety! Here are a few that we recommend:
"The Mischief Makers and the Summer Camp Worries" by Christie Cuthbert
"Ruby Finds a Worry" by Tom Percival
"When My Worries Get Too Big" by Karl Dunn Buron
"Don't Feed the Worry Bug" by Andi Green
"What to do When You Worry Too Much" by Dawn Huebner
You got this, parents - and we are always here to help!
-The LD Expert
*LD Expert is not a medical doctor, and information in this post should not be used for medical advice. Always consult your physician for medical information regarding anxiety and/or depression.