Breathing gets shallow, heart’s pounding, irritability and restlessness ensue — those are symptoms of anxiety at the surface. The intensity or sudden onset can be scary for any adult. What if it’s our children’s anxiety at that level?
As parents, we do all we can to help our children navigate through life issues. And when it comes to nervousness and all that triggers it, we often try different ways to get rid of it.
However, we may be going about it all wrong.
“[Anxiety] is not to be gotten rid of,” explains Renee Jain, founder of GoZen! and co-author of Superpowered, in an interview on The Mindvalley Podcast. Rather, it is something that’s a part of who we are and we can transform it into courage, confidence, and resilience.
Taking notes from the sit down with Vishen, founder of Mindvalley, here’s a closer look at how you, as a parent, can better understand your children’s anxiety and help them through it.
And if you’d like to listen to the full interview, here’s Renee and her co-author, Dr. Shefali Tsabary, who’s also a clinical psychologist and the trainer of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest.
Understanding Children’s Anxiety
While it’s often associated with fear, anxiety refers to the anticipation of future concern, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It shows up as muscle tension or avoidance behavior, whereas fear is more about the fight or flight response — either staying to fight or taking flight to escape danger.
Every feeling we have is a messenger. We can sit with the feeling, and the moment we allow the feeling to rise up, we start to decode the message that the anxiety’s sending.— Renee Jain, founder of GoZen! and co-author of Superpowered: Transform Anxiety into Courage, Confidence, and Resilience
But the thing is, this feeling is a natural response to stress. That makes it, as with other emotions, a normal feeling to have.
What contributes to children’s anxiety?
There’s no one specific reason for it to show up for anyone, even little humans. However, there are a number of factors that play a role in shifting happy children into anxious ones:
- Genetics and brain chemistry. If a family member suffers from an anxiety disorder, it could possibly contribute to the children inheriting genes that make them prone to this emotional response. Those genes help direct the way the brain’s neurotransmitters work.
- Life situations. Life happens, and stressful events, like loss, serious illness, death of a loved one, violence, or abuse, can definitely contribute to anxiety.
- Learned behaviors. Children learn by copying their parents. So if fear or worry is commonplace in the household, it “teaches” the offspring to be anxious, fearful, or depressed, too.
- Parenting styles. Some styles of parenting can put more stress on the young ones than not. This includes authoritarian (using strict, harsh behavior with children) and neglectful parenting (lack of responsiveness to the children’s needs).
Though having anxiety can be scary at times, it can be of benefit in some situations. For example, that sudden feeling of dread you may feel in an intense situation can be an alert to danger. It can be a warning to help you pay attention and prepare for whatever may happen next.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” says Renee. “You worry, you’re anxious — that’s okay. That’s part of being human.”
However, when the emotion becomes excessive, that’s when it can turn into something more serious (for example, panic, separation anxiety, or social anxiety disorder). That can lead to children’s depression and other mental health issues.
So much so that one in five children reported having an anxiety disorder, according to a meta-literature review published in JAMA Pediatrics. And with the negative influences of social media, firearm-related fatalities, and a global pandemic, it’s something that affects millions of young people in the United States now more than ever.
How does anxiety affect children’s learning?
Children with anxiety may be uncomfortable in social settings, like school. And when it’s chronic, can disrupt the brain’s development, leading to lifelong consequences in emotional regulation, thought processes, and working memory.
A paper published by Harvard University’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child states, “For young children who perceive the world as a threatening place, a wide range of conditions can trigger anxious behaviors that then impair their ability to learn and to interact socially with others.”
With this emotion affecting the brain as it does, it’s more likely that anxious children are easily distracted. And it’ll take a whole process of unlearning for them to be indistractable.
How to Identify Anxiety in Children
Big feelings can be overwhelming to deal with, especially as a youngster who doesn’t have the understanding and tools to do so.
Anxiety, for instance, shows up very similarly with low blood sugar levels. Or panic could be mistaken for anxiety.
“[Children] feel like they have to hide anger, sadness, negativity, guilt, worry…part of their humanity,” says Renee. “They feel like they’re not being successful at life because all they keep hearing from everybody is, ‘We just want you to be happy.‘”
So one of the first (and most important) steps is to recognize what it looks like and what your children would be experiencing to identify it properly. And here are the signs and symptoms, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Signs of anxiety
A sign is the manifestation of a medical issue from an objective point of view. So if you suspect your children’s having anxiety, here are some signs you can look out for:
- Fidgety, wound-up, or on-edge
- Easily and constantly fatigued
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Irritable or easily agitated
- Having headaches, muscles aches, stomachaches, or unexplained pains
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
- Having trouble falling or staying asleep
- Indulging in destructive habits, like overeating or staying on their devices
- Difficulty making eye contact or being around people they don’t know
- Worry excessively or irrationally
The severity of anxiety varies from child to child. So ensure they know you’re open and available for support without judgment if they need it.
Symptoms of anxiety
A symptom is the manifestation of a medical issue from a subjective point of view. Now, your children may not know what anxiety may show up as. So as a conscious parent, here’s what you can teach them to look out for:
- Pounding or racing heart
- Trembling or tingling
- Chest pain
- Feelings of impending doom
- Feelings of being out of control
- Self-conscious or fear that people will negatively judge them
- Experience immediate panic attacks, when encountering a feared object or situation
Remember: if your youngster is struggling with anxiety, getting help from a health care provider is always advisable.
How to Calm Children’s Anxiety: The Dos and Don’ts
Little humans are constantly learning about themselves, especially when it comes to self-regulation. So here are some key dos and don’ts to help with your children’s anxiety.
All children are different — a technique that works for one may not work for another (even if both are your offspring). However, there are five positive parenting solutions you can use to help your young ones when they’re feeling anxious.
1. Remind them that feelings are normal
It’s not about getting rid of feelings as they surface. Rather, it’s about how to raise your children to have a more positive relationship with their feelings.
Suppressing the emotions or brushing them aside can have dire consequences on their emotional well-being down the line. So teach your little human to identify them and sit with them as they arise. Sure, it’ll be uncomfortable, but it, too, shall pass.
2. Teach them breathing techniques
Breathwork is one of the best natural remedies for children’s anxiety. Now, while “just breathe” is great advice, to effectively gain its benefits, it requires practice.
One easy technique is called “Smell the Flowers, Blow the Candle”:
- Ask your child to breathe in through their nose and “smell the flowers” for three seconds.
- Then instruct them to breathe out through their mouth and “blow the candle” for five seconds.
- Repeat three times (or as many times as necessary until they’re in a calm state)
You can do this exercise with them until they’ve mastered it. If this gets too easy for them, box breathing is a great one to advance to next. Here’s one to help relieve stress:
3. Teach them how to use positive affirmations
Affirmations are short (and usually positive) statements said on the daily. It helps reprogram the mind to capture empowering beliefs, habits, and thought patterns.
Remember the phrase nanny Aibileen Clack teaches baby Mae Mobley in the movie, The Help? “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” That’s an example of positive affirmation.
4. Advise them to keep a journal
A powerful way to vent out feelings is by writing them down. Journaling can help process stress,, trauma, and other related emotions.
Numerous research has shown that journaling can be beneficial for those suffering from anxiety and depression. One study, in particular, looked at 100 young adults who were asked to journal or draw a stressful experience for 15 minutes twice during one week. The results showed those who journaled saw a significant reduction in anxiety, depression, and hostility.
So buy them a journal. And anytime they feel anxious, encourage them to write down how those emotions make them feel as well as what they think would make them feel better.
5. Keep learning how to help your children
As your little human grows, so will their wants, needs, the environment they’re in, friends they keep, and so on and so forth. So keep growing as a parent by learning different methods and techniques that can help your little human with the stresses they’ll face at different periods of their lives.
There are some amazing children’s books about anxiety out there, like Renee and Dr. Shefali’s Superpowered: Transform Anxiety into Courage, Confidence, and Resilience, as well as neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf’s upcoming How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess: A Guide to Building Resilience and Managing Mental Health (available for purchase in 2023).
While you may want to do everything in your power to take the hurt and pain away from your little one, you may do more damage than good. So here are a few things to steer clear of when helping your children with their anxiety.
1. Don’t ask leading questions
Encouraging your young ones to talk and express their feelings can be a big task. So it’s best to ask open-ended questions instead of leading ones.
For example, the leading questions like “Are you anxious about the big test?” or “Are you worried about the first day of school?” can cause bias and reinforce the anxiety instead of transforming it into something empowering.
Instead, reframe the questions to be open-ended, like “How do you think you did on the big test?” or “How are you feeling about the first day of school?” These types of inquiries require your children to really think about their feelings. ”
2. Don’t belittle their anxious feelings
“Don’t be a crybaby.” “It’s not a big deal.” “Don’t dwell on it.” These are all very common responses parents often give their children. And it’s called emotion dismissing.
If your child is expressing worry or fear, dismissing them may just signal that their feelings aren’t important and eliminate the stressors that cause them.
3. Don’t mollycoddle them
“Feeling the feelings” is uncomfortable, for sure. And the brain’s “fight or flight” mode naturally wants to avoid any kind of discomfort and in doing so, it may help short term. However, it only reinforces your children’s anxiety in the long run.
For example, if your young one is upset and crying about going to the first day of kindergarten, you may say that it’s okay for them to skip just one day (or another…or another one after that…). By not allowing them to experience the situation, they won’t get the opportunity to learn an appropriate coping mechanism.
4. Don’t escalate the situation
Let’s be real: you, as a parent, aren’t immune to stressful situations, no more than your children are. And having to coach a youngster through big emotions, like anxiety, can undoubtedly get overwhelming. It’s even more so when you yourself have never been taught to deal with your own emotions.
So when you let your anger, annoyance, or exasperation get the better of you, it’s essentially telling your child that expressing their emotions will get them in trouble.
That’s not saying you’re not allowed to make mistakes (you are human, after all). But be as patient as you can with your little one.
5. Don’t encourage distractions
When your child’s crying, it’s easy to shove an iPad in their hands and press play to Peppa Pig. However, ask yourself what you’re teaching them when you do so.
Your child should be taught how to deal with their emotions. Without emotional resiliency, it can have negative consequences in their adult years.
Great Change Starts With You
Anxiety is never the problem; it’s the root cause underneath the anxiety. And unless we look beneath the surface, nothing on the surface will change.— Dr. Shefali Tsabary, trainer of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest
Parenthood comes without any instruction manual, not even on how to help your children’s distress. Thankfully, experts like Renee Jain and Dr. Shefali Tsabary are trained to help parents like you go through the challenges that come with having children.
At Mindvalley, you can master incredibly powerful techniques and learn some knowledge nuggets from Dr. Shefali herself in the Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest. What’s more, you’ll be part of a global tribe, filled with other parents who’re, more than likely, going through something similar to you.
If you’re not ready to dive into the deep end, you can download the Mindvalley app and access sample selected personal growth courses for FREE.
Your children’s greatness starts with yours. And when you make a change within yourself, you create an impact for your future generations.