Are your kids anxious? Here’s how to help them cope
Anxiety symptoms in kids can be tricky to identify. But knowing what to watch for can get them the support they need.
By Anna Sharratt
Kids feel stress just as adults do. Some kids trend generally toward being anxious – while others may be reacting to a specific situation.
According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, one out of every five and youth in Canada has a mental health condition.
Kids can be chameleons when it comes to anxiety, hiding how they’re really feeling, Katie Turner, a Calgary-based psychologist, says. While some internalize their feelings, others may act out in unusual ways. “Kids may not say much but may show that something’s up,” she says.
Some kids come down with inexplicable morning stomach aches when they feel anxious, for example. Others may bite their nails or pop their fingers in their mouths. Or they could wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to get back to sleep.
Turner suggests parents watch for signs of anxiety:
- Unusual bouts of anger
- More emotional outbursts, such as excessive crying
- Trouble sleeping
- Regression, such as acting years younger
- Problems at school with behaviour or academics
- Worrying about health issues.
There can also be physical symptoms such as:
- Bed wetting
- Nail biting
- Stomach aches
- Hair pulling
Helping your child with anxiety
If your kids are feeling anxious, there are ways to help. Turner has five tips for helping kids cope with anxiety.
- Talk with your child. See if you can learn what’s bothering them. Choose a quiet space and time of the day when you’re not busy. Gently tell them about what you’ve noticed. Kids may not realize that what they feel is anxiety, according to Anxiety Canada. Let them know that many people get anxious and they can manage it successfully. And explain that stress can be a good thing. It can help us play a sport well or get a good grade on a class test.
- Visit your child’s teacher or school. If your child doesn’t open up, plan a school visit. A teacher may be able to give insight about what’s bothering your child, Turner says. Maybe a classmate is bullying your child. Or they’re having trouble learning. Find out what is stressful for your child and see if you can change their school situation, she says. If your child is struggling in school, she recommends talking with your child’s school, doctor or psychologist. Ask if having a psychologist assess them would help. This might be appropriate if the teacher has said they are two grade levels or more below in an academic area, for example. An evaluation can identify learning disabilities, a diagnosis of Attention Deficit (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or other concerns that can affect school performance.
- Teach your child coping strategies.A child needs to be able to identify when they feel stressed. Perhaps they start feeling jittery or getting headaches. Once they realize they’re anxious, talk with them about how to relax, Turner says. That can be through deep breathing exercises you’ve practised at home. Or walking away from a stressful situation.
- Minimize anxiety through lifestyle. First, rule out any nutritional deficiencies with your child’s doctor. For example, a lack of B12 can lead to mood issues. Ensure they’re making healthy lifestyle choices, Turner says. These include:
- Regular exercise, which can boost hormones that regulate mood.
- Proper nutrition, such as a diet high in fruit and vegetables, as well as good-quality proteins and healthy fats.
- Good sleep habits. A good-quality sleep can go a long way in regulating mood. Taking a few moments every day to visualize positive ways of handling stressful situations can help teach your child.
- Adhering to a schedule. The structure of schedules can comfort kids.
- Having Downtime. Kids also need non-scheduled time to decompress and relax.
- Don’t wait too long. “Being proactive is better than waiting for the problems to get worse,” Turner says. You can observe the behaviour for a few weeks to see if it improves. But take action if anxiety is having a significant negative impact at home, school or with friends. It’s a good idea to have a professional assess your child early to prevent anxiety from taking hold. She suggests reaching out to a doctor who can recommend a therapist, if necessary. Early treatment with a therapist may prevent anxiety from becoming a chronic issue, she says.
Helping your child with anxiety involves a little sleuthing – and lots of love and support, Turner says. But if things aren’t improving or are getting worse, seek help for your child. Sometimes therapy early can prevent bigger problems later on, she says.
Are you looking for mental health support for your family? Search for psychologists near you and request an appointment.
Written in consultation with Katie Turner, Registered Psychologist.