Here's What to Say to a Young Kid Struggling With Anxiety

little girl holding onto her parent's leg
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In the weeks leading up to her first day of kindergarten, my daughter was over the moon with excitement. She talked about her new school, her new friends, and the holy grail of 5-year-old happiness -- the school bus. And then suddenly, it was here, her first day of school. The emerald green skirt and bright pink T-shirt had been laid out days in advance. Her overwhelming giddiness helped me keep it together as I watched her ponytail bounce down the long hall and into a new chapter of life.

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I expected all the stories when she came home that afternoon, but she was reserved and had very little to say other than, "it was fun." I wrote it off as exhaustion, knowing there would likely be a period of acclimation as she learned the ropes of kindergarten. But as the weeks went by, she began to worry, almost obsessively, about forgetting to return a paper or a library book, becoming tearful and near panic when she couldn't locate the item in question. My once bright, bubbly 5-year-old had become the girl fighting off tears each morning during school drop-off. As the days passed, I realized what I had perceived as exhaustion was actually anxiety -- and it was only getting worse.

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As a registered nurse in the mental health field, I found it easy to identify my daughter's anxiety for what it was. But there are many different symptoms of anxiety, and it can be easy for parents to miss the signs. In children, anxiety can manifest in unexpected ways: excessive nervousness, irritability, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and restlessness. Children will attempt to avoid the people or things that cause them anxiety. You may notice a change in their behavior when this occurs. Some children will throw tantrums, while others will complain of a stomach ache, or cry for seemingly no reason. My daughter was much more irritable than normal and worried excessively. She even tried to avoid going to school, which is very out of character for her.

Children and adults will experience normal periods of anxiety during various phases of life, and it's not uncommon for kids to experience anxiety during periods of transition, like adjusting to school. This type of anxiety is usually temporary, but it's still important to assess it thoroughly, so you can develop a plan of action. As parents, we naturally want to fix things, so it seems logical to avoid the event or activity that causes your child's anxiety; in reality, though, that will only make things worse. For example, if your child is anxious around dogs, it may seem like a good idea to avoid them, but given the presence of dogs in society, your child will likely continue to encounter them for years to come.

Instead of avoiding the things that make kids anxious, it's important that we help kids manage their anxiety, and provide reassurance that they can handle the situation. One of my daughter's major sources of anxiety was her school's behavior system. It's a simple color-card system that starts on yellow each morning, but can change for negative behavior, like not listening or talking out of turn. Yellow means a day with good behavior, green is a warning, blue is multiple issues, and red means a phone call to your parents. My daughter worried excessively about having her card turned. She brought it up multiple times a day, certain her card would be turned for forgetting a library book, or wearing the wrong color shirt. Her behavior has never been an issue, but for some reason the thought of having her card turned was all she could talk about.

To help her manage her worry, we talked about what would happen if her card was turned. We discussed that it could happen, as no one is perfect and everyone has bad days, but reassured her that it would be okay, and she could handle it. We explained that having her card turned would give her an opportunity to learn from her mistakes, and try again the next day -- no big deal. We kept things realistic but provided her with the support and reassurance she needed.

Talking to your children about what they are feeling is paramount in addressing their anxiety. Try to avoid leading questions like, "Are you worried about your math test?" Instead ask, "How are you feeling about your upcoming math test?"

Be supportive. Telling your child "not to worry" or to "calm down" is not helpful. Attempt to instill confidence, while providing realistic expectations. "Even if you don't pass the test, you will be okay." Being supportive and encouraging your child to face his or her fear can actually lessen anxiety over time.

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Above all else, your children want to know that you are in their corner. Using phrases like "I know you're scared, but you can do this" and "I'm here for you" lets your kids know that they have your support. My daughter still mentions having her card turned from time to time, and we still have mornings where she gets a little teary-eyed before school, but overall, things are improving, and she knows we are here to help her when she struggles.

If you aren't sure what's causing your child's anxiety, or have concerns it may be something outside your scope as a parent, don't be afraid to reach out to your child's school counselor or pediatrician. Sometimes, it really does take a village.

Take a deep breath, talk, listen, and encourage. You can do this.

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