Anxiety is the body’s natural reaction to stress, real or imagined. It’s the “fight or flight” response as the brain orders the body to be flooded with neurochemicals that allow the muscles to react quickly. Everyone feels anxious at some point, but in some people this reaction is overly strong or happens when they perceive there “might” be danger, even if it’s not real. The chemicals are not used in fight or flight, leaving reactions such as shallow breathing, racing heart, tightening in the chest, dizziness, tense muscles and shaky hands, among others. Emotionally, anxiety comes across as excessive worry or dread, feeling angry or close to tears, or feeling out of control.
Unfortunately, anxiety is the most common mental health concern in children and young adults, affecting upwards of 20% of adolescents. It’s frequently overlooked, as it can manifest as shyness in some and acting out in others. Left untreated, however, anxiety can develop into depression. What’s a parent to do? Start by listening to them talk about their feelings. Help them understand this is a normal reaction and they need to pay attention to when they feel this way. Focusing on the present situation can your anxious child to see if there really is danger nearby or something they can deal with once they realize they’re okay.
The greatest help you can provide your child is to help them learn to deal with their anxiety. You’re not trying to make situations where they simply make their anxiety go away; you’re helping your child learn to manage them. Avoidance is a coping mechanism that reinforces their anxiety, sending the message that there really is something to fear rather than learning to deal with it. When you express realistic, positive expectations and confidence that your child can face their fears, that gives them the support they need, which helps them learn to be confident in themselves. Remember, anxiety is not weakness. It’s the body’s response on overdrive. You can help calm your child by remaining calm yourself and encouraging them to learn to manage their fears. Instead of asking if they’re anxious about an upcoming test, ask them how they feel about it and be open to whatever they tell you.
There are many ways that your child can learn to manage their anxiety. For severe cases, therapy or biofeedback might be used or medicines prescribed. In most cases, however, learning to recognize the symptoms can enable your child to calm themselves. Relaxation techniques are especially helpful in this regard. When your child or teen understands that their physical or emotional reaction is an overreaction, they can learn to recognize when they start to feel anxious and figure out why they feel this way. They can also learn to block those feelings by focusing on the present and acknowledging they aren’t in real danger. By taking deep breaths and paying attention to their body’s reactions, they can actively manage those reactions to be less stressful.
Setting aside 20 minutes a day for relaxation can be especially helpful in teaching your child to recognize and slow down their reactions. For example, teach them to listen to calming music and focus on breathing deeply and shutting out distractions. Tell them to make their breath slow and even as they feel their muscles relax. Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep can also help the body react less to anxiety-inducing situations. Try to help them take time to connect with others and with nature to feel more peaceful and secure. If circumstances command, you may consider a therapy dog who can help alleviate extreme anxiety and depression that your child may be experiencing. Read more about how therapy dogs can help from Rover.com.
Moving and starting at a new school can be especially stressful, and there are ways to lessen related anxiety. Start by knowing that it will be different from what you and your child are used to, so plan for an adjustment period. Reach out to teachers to see how your child is doing and consider volunteering to get a feel for the new environment. Middle school, especially, comes with an increased homework load that can overwhelm the most prepared student. Encourage your child to make friends with older kids who know the ropes and not to worry if they fall a little behind what they’re used to.
If your anxious child suffers from anxiety, take some time to figure out how to help them learn to manage their fears and stress. Teach them how to refocus and have confidence in themselves, and listen to them and trust them to figure it out and adjust. If you believe in them, chances are they will too.