The world has changed significantly over the past six months, which means the way children display anxiety has changed as well. Parents may see their kids acting strangely or just being quiet and think nothing of it, but there could be underlying issues. This is why recognizing the signs of anxiety in your child is important in order to help them through it.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children and teens are likely to experience separation anxiety and agoraphobia with the return to school. They may find themselves struggling with new social and emotional dynamics as well, when that return to school looks different than it has in the past. Those who were already struggling with anxiety and depression may be at an increased risk.
Recognizing Anxiety in Your Child
Given the number of adults who have admitted to struggling with anxiety and depression during the pandemic, Kelly Fradin, MD tells Parentology that it’s almost certain our children are suffering more than ever before as well.
“I would advise parents to look for decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, and new fears such as fears of the dark or of dogs,” she says. “Younger children might show more clinginess, tantrums, or potty training setbacks while older children might show limited focus or worse academic performance.”
Anxiety can present physically as well, says Fradin, with symptoms like stomach pains and headaches. “Withdrawal and lack of interest in normal activities, and anger can also be signs.”
Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety
Parents can try to start a conversation with their kids by using “it looks like, it sounds like,” phrases, explains Tania DaSilva, a child, youth and family therapist. This can help your child put into words how they’re feeling, and bring awareness to what it looks like to others, how it may feel for them, and how it sounds out loud.
“We want to help children develop emotional awareness, connect to their feelings and develop emotional language,” DaSilva tells Parentology. “As parents, we also want to clue into these signs and see it as an ask for help. Behavioral and emotional changes can come from the inability to cope.”
Starting the conversation can help prevent kids from getting stuck on the behavior, and help understand the emotion that may be triggering these behaviors. She suggests using the following questions as prompts in addition to practicing coping strategies like deep breathing, changing negative thoughts to a positive, taking a break, or asking for help.
- What do we know for sure?
- What can we guess or assume?
- What do we not know?
(With this question, circle back to what we can assume or who can help us answer this?)
- What is in our control? What can we do?
- What is out of our control? How can we cope?
- How can we practice and prepare? (Role plays, dry runs, etc?)
- How can we tap into a growth mindset and think back to past moments that felt scary, unknown, or new — and how did that turn out?
Helping Younger Kids With Anxiety
For younger children, Fradin says books can be powerful resources to explore emotions.
“Some books such as Kevin Henkes’ Wemberly Worried* or Tom Percival’s Ruby’s Worry* are great at explaining worries in language young children can grasp,” she notes. Additionally, she suggests telling stories about your childhood and times when you felt nervous, as this can be really helpful for children. “Parents can use this time to teach and model coping skills like deep breathing, positive self-talk, or mindfulness.”
Encouraging children to label their feelings and make constructive plans to feel better such as exercise, finding flow in a favorite activity like art, or spending (virtual) time with a friend can all help to get them past their anxiety.
Anxiety Related to COVID
Fradin recommends that parents normalize any anxiety their kids feel around returning to in-person school.
“It’s been more than six months for many children so of course it’s going to feel funny and that’s okay,” she says. “It can be difficult for parents to hear about children struggling, but the most important thing to do is listen and not minimize or dismiss your children’s emotions.”
When it comes to virtual school, she encourages parents to acknowledge that it may not be ideal circumstances. “We can try to find ways to focus on the positive – ‘Your teachers are working really hard to make this as good as it can be’ or ‘at least with virtual school we get to have lunch together!’”
And it doesn’t hurt to prepare your kids for the possibility that things might change. Fradin suggests discussing scenarios like a return to virtual school and quarantines before they happen.
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