Helping Your Anxious Child

About 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys—totaling 6.3 million teens—have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. Experts suspect that these statistics are on the low end of what’s really happening, since many people do not seek help for anxiety and depression. A 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute found that only about 20 percent of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment.

Dr. Lori Baudino, a board certified dance and movement therapist and licensed clinical psychologist, believes that anxiety in children today is rising because of exposure to more parental worries, more violence, more media, more stimulation and more expectations.

Fortunately, there are many ways to support children to help overcome these discomforts and to set them up for ease. The following are five ways to support a child that is exhibiting anxious, fearful or distress symptoms:

1. Take notice of your child’s nonverbal cues.

It’s easy to notice the presence of anxiety when you know what to look for—just take a look at your child’s nonverbal communication. Identifying unusual patterns of eye contact, shoulder shrugs, a trembling lip, posture changes and shaky or fidgeting hands can be some initial signs of anxiety. If you start to suspect something is off, investigate further by asking your child if he or she ever experiences a combination of issues like sweating palms, racing heart or trouble sleeping. These are clear signs of anxiety.

2. Encourage open communication.

Open communication is necessary if you want to help manage your child’s anxiety. Create special time for your child each day to have a conversation about his or her feelings, opinions and thoughts. When having this discussion, make sure to validate these feelings and keep a positive, non-judgmental attitude. Never dismiss what your child is saying with “You’re fine.” Instead, say something like “What is causing you to feel this way?” Anxious children will often remain silent about their issues if they feel like they aren’t being understood.

3. Teach your child to embrace anxious thoughts and feelings.

People with anxiety usually do everything they can to avoid what is making them anxious. They tend to put off tasks that are the source of their anxiety or become suddenly reclusive when faced with an upcoming anxiety-provoking event. However, in doing this, the individual ends up maintaining the anxiety, which eventually makes the problem much worse. Try and teach your child that the best way to deal with their worries is to acknowledge them right away—to accept that these feelings exist and take immediate steps to diminish them. Pushing away feelings and thoughts, hoping they will eventually go away on their own, will just make overcoming the issue much more stressful in the end. Although this is not an easy task for someone with anxiety, with daily practice, it can dramatically help reduce anxiety over time.

4. Try movement.

An alternative way of treating anxiety is through dance and movement therapy. Consider enrolling your child in dance/movement therapy sessions, which can create ways to express psychological and emotional experiences through the mind and body connection, ultimately transforming words into action. The dance movements range from simple breathing to jumping, running, gross motor skills and even watching movement. This therapeutic modality provides children the opportunity to work through psychological challenges, gain control, ease discomfort, express their feelings about their anxieties and to be a child again.

5. De-stress every day.

Learning how to mentally and physically calm down when anxiety strikes is something every anxious child should know how to do. Even the most basic relaxation exercises can make a big improvement in reducing stress and anxiety. Simple practices like taking a few deep, slow breaths when anxious thoughts arise, or closing the eyes and creating a mental picture of a relaxing scenario can help to ease an anxious mind. In addition, teaching your child to adopt the mindset of living in the present can be tremendously beneficial. Anticipatory anxiety can be tackled by practicing mindfulness—being aware of the moment—observing the sounds, sights, and touch of the present. Mindfulness has been proven to help support unwanted stressors.  

It’s important to know that all anxiety is not the same. If you find that your child’s anxiety is becoming too difficult to manage, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. The most important thing is to make sure your child is taking the right steps to resolve the problem.

Lori M. Baudino, PsyD, BC-DMT is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Dance Movement Therapist. She works extensively in private practice specializing with children and parents.

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