Every individual faces particular challenges, and children are not immune to having struggles of their own. Some children struggle to come to grips with feelings of stress, worry, or anxiety, and it can seriously impact their behavior, moods, and self esteem. If you learn to recognize the common signs of anxiety in young children, you will be more able to help your child work through feelings of stress in order to function better with the day-to-day demands of growing up.
The Signs Of Stress
Children may manifest stress signals differently than adults, simply because they don't yet have the cognitive development to fully process situations that unlock feelings of worry. You should be concerned that your child struggles with anxiety if they:
- always assume the worst will happen, or ask questions that show they have imagined traumatic scenarios. For example, you will know your child continues to imagine the worst if all of their "what if" questions include accidents or negative emotions, like "What if I fall down?" or "What happens if the car crashes?"
- replay negative things that have happened in the past over and over. A child with anxiety may consistently dwell on things that worry them, even if that thing happened the day, week, or month before. They will struggle to let it go. You may see it manifest in drawings, pretend during play (where the situation is role played by dolls), or in leading questions that your child may ask about the past.
- employ avoidance tactics. Some children have fears that are centralized around certain people or objects. For example, a child who fears water may make excuses not to have a bath, or may opt to do something else when the family goes swimming. They may even attempt to avoid the pool by faking an injury or by bringing an alternative "important" activity with them to do instead, like homework, coloring, or other toys.
- obsess over doing things in a certain way. Many children deal with anxious feelings by attempting to put what they can control into perfect order. They may get very upset when certain routines or systems that they have devised are disrupted.
Other signs that you may have an over-anxious child include emotional outbursts, such as tears or anger, that don't make sense to the situation, clinginess and fear of strangers, or a silent withdrawal and unwillingness to try or engage in normal activities.
Parents Can Help
Fortunately, as a parent, you are in the perfect position to provide your child with the tools they need to cope. The most important thing to remember is that these feelings are real for children and they often don't know how to process them properly. Never assume that your child will "grow out" of anxiety problems, because nearly half of teenagers who struggle with depression had troubles with anxiety as children. With this in mind, you can:
- Provide support. Never punish your child for feeling anxious, as this emotional separation from you will only increase feelings of worry. They may feel less safe about sharing feelings if they are fearing some sort of consequence.
- Redirect behavior. You can teach your child the right way to deal with stressful feelings. If you notice, for example, that your child vents frustration through something that may cause themselves harm, such as pulling out hair or biting the hand, you can provide a more healthy outlet. Teach your child another method for stress management, such a tearing up paper, coloring, or even jumping up and down in order to get the feeling out.
- Ask the right questions. It's important to talk to your child about their day and their responsibilities. However, you can ask them about their feelings without mentioning negatives. For example, it is better to ask "How are you feeling about sleeping away from home?" instead of asking "Are you worried about staying with your aunt this weekend?" This way, they can decide and communicate how they really feel, instead of being reminded that perhaps they should be worried, even if they weren't before.
- Help your child prepare. If your child is worried about an event or test, help them alleviate their anxiety by helping them rehearse their answers. If you work through problems together, you will see an improvement in performance.
- Narrate your own stress management strategies. When you have a bad day, give your child an example to follow. Speak out loud, saying things like, "Burning dinner is so frustrating to me. I am going to take a break and read a book to help calm me down."
If you still need more ideas for how to help your child, you may want to consult a parenting therapist or counselor who can give you some pointers.