It’s no secret that childhood anxiety has been on the rise for decades. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children have an anxiety disorder and, “Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences and engage in substance abuse.” But as a parent or regular caregiver, you can help kids — even young kids — learn how to cope with stress and anxiety.
Recognize the signs.
Young kids may not yet have the vocabulary to tell you they are anxious or stressed, which is why you need to pay attention to the behaviors that could indicate these feelings. Keep an eye out for frequent headaches or digestive issues, sleep problems or bedwetting (for children who are potty-trained overnight), moodiness or sudden separation anxiety, and refusing to go to school. They can all be signs that something isn’t right. With younger kids, it can be easy to dismiss these behaviors as simply a “phase,” but if your instinct is telling you that something is wrong, don’t ignore it.
Figure out the cause.
Little kids, little problems, right? Not so much. There are plenty of big reasons a child might be stressed or anxious, like if your family has gone through a major life transition — a new baby, a move, a divorce, the death of a loved one. Older school-aged children might be dealing with internal or external pressure to achieve academically or in athletics; they may be struggling to fit in with their peers; or they may feel threatened by a bully. Other reasons may include a jam-packed schedule that leaves a child too little time to relax, an upsetting news event, like a school shooting, natural disaster or terrorism, or even a scary story, movie or television show. When you ask your child about the cause of his or her stress, beware of open-ended questions like, “What’s wrong?” Chances are the answer will be, “Nothing.” Instead, be specific. Pay attention to what’s going on, then ask (for example), “Are you feeling upset about your math test?” Your child will be more likely to respond with a yes or a no, and either one opens the door to more conversation.
Make home a safe and loving place.
If a child’s home is chaotic and unsafe, their mental health is likely to suffer. A child should, first and foremost, be loved and unconditionally accepted at home. That doesn’t mean you can’t encourage your kids to work hard and do their best, but they must know that no matter what happens out in the world, they are safe at home. This type of environment builds self-esteem, which helps children better manage their feelings and makes it easier for them to seek out a parent’s advice when they are facing a problem.
Maintain a healthy routine.
Routines are important for kids because predictability equals less stress. Sticking to a healthy routine means kids are going to bed at a reasonable hour every night, getting enough sleep and eating nutritious foods. If you’re having trouble with the basics of a routine, chances are your child is over-committed. Look at the calendar and see if there’s an activity that can be dropped or social events that can be skipped. Scheduling in screen-free downtime, fresh air, exercise and play should also be part of your family’s regular routine. These activities will not only boost a kid’s mood, they can also help kids regulate their behavior and emotions.
Teach kids to be resilient.
Starting at a young age, children are often pushed to be competitive at sports and excel academically, which plants the seed that failure is not an option. This mentality can cause a lot of unnecessary stress because failure is a part of life. The reality is that kids can’t and shouldn’t be perfect, and sometimes they will make bad decisions. What’s important is they understand that learning from our mistakes is part of growing up. As a parent or caregiver, you can reassure them that it’s OK; we all get things wrong and make mistakes sometimes. Help them figure out how to move forward—make a game plan and fix the problem or talk about how to go about it differently next time. Once they’ve learned the lesson, move on.
Practice self-care. (Yes, you.)
Experts today stress the importance of parents taking time out to care for themselves, but often this sage advice seems an impossible task. Remember, it’s not just for your own good: Kids have an uncanny ability to pick up on the emotions of the adults around them. If you’re not effectively dealing with your own stress in healthy ways, your children could be reacting to those feelings with stress and anxiety of their own. Plus, like with so many things, parents need to model appropriate behavior — and stress management is no different.
Seek professional advice.
It’s OK for kids to feel stressed or anxious sometimes — we all do. In most cases, parents and trusted caregivers are well-equipped to help their children manage these feelings. But if a child’s stress or anxiety seems extreme or is causing significant and persistent behavior issues at home or in school, seeking help from a professional is the right thing to do. Be proactive and consult your child’s pediatrician or school counselor to help you find the resources you need.