Learn the tell-tale signs of childhood anxiety and ways to respond to encourage growth and resolution within your child.
Childhood anxiety is on the rise. The latest numbers show that somewhere around 15-20% of children experience anxiety symptoms before the age of 12, with 30% of adults suffering from anxiety disorders reporting their first symptoms to have started in early childhood. If left untreated, these symptoms can turn into full blown anxiety disorders in adolescence or early adulthood. The early signs of anxiety experienced by children range from mild symptoms to full-blown anxiety disorders. While some anxiety is considered a normal response to stress, it is the persistent, pervasive, overwhelming, and ongoing dread or fear that inhibits children from maturing and developing the appropriate coping skills to advance beyond their worry.
Typical childhood anxiety arises from separations, stranger danger, or fears and worry about dangerous or new situations. Often these mild anxious feelings can be soothed by a comforting and reassuring parent and the child is able to self-soothe and self-regulate. When this natural self-soothing and self-regulation does not occur, the worries and fears can grow into more advanced generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive behaviors, phobias, panic disorders, or anxiety attacks.
Since children do not have the brain development or cognitive capacity to label all of their feelings through words, the signs of childhood anxiety usually first present as physical or somatic complaints: headaches, stomach aches, rashes such as hives, overall body aches and pains, nightmares, night terrors, and waking during the night or not able to fall asleep. Other times children and adolescents may hide their anxiety under emotional symptoms such as anger, irritability, or extreme shyness. Changes in typical behavior, such as an outgoing child suddenly becoming overly clingy and fearful, are also worth noting.
Helping Your Child Feel Safe
The first step in helping your child overcome anxiety symptoms is to help them feel safe. Anxiety is an emotional response to stress or fear of danger, so being able to calm your child’s brain and let your child know they are safe is the quickest way to keep the anxious feelings from escalating into a full-on anxiety attack or panic.
When a child begins to panic, the primitive part of their brain- the amygdala- begins sending alert signals throughout the body causing the heart rate to increase, breathing to become short and rapid, and releases the stress hormone cortisol which prepares the child for the fight or flight response to the perceived danger. By sending safety signals to your child’s brain, you are able to calm your child’s amygdala and stop the production of stress hormones in their tracks.
Using comforting non-verbal techniques such as hugging or rocking your child (size permitting) will quickly calm and quiet the stress response and help your child become regulated again. Other techniques such getting down on your child’s level and telling them in a calm and accepting voice that they are safe, you are here, and that you will protect them can be effective if your child is in a state where they can process verbal language (i.e., the anxiety attack or panic attack has not become too strong).
When your child is able to sense that they are not alone in the danger and that you are there to help keep them safe, the stress hormones will begin to subside and the calming hormones of oxytocin and opioids will kick into gear. The oxytocin that is released when the child feels connected and comforted by you is calming your child’s brain and priming the brain to develop skills of self-regulation and self-soothing.
For children that experience persistent and overwhelming fear and worries, ongoing treatment to help them feel safe and develop coping skills may be necessary. Play therapy is extremely beneficial for children suffering from anxiety as it allows children to develop internal self-regulation and control over their symptoms. Parenting support services can also be helpful to teach parents how to recognize and respond in a calm and safe way to their child’s early anxiety symptoms to prevent the anxiety from advancing and becoming stronger and more persistent and pervasive in adolescence.
When it comes to childhood anxiety, early prevention and treatment is key. Recognizing when your child is feeling fearful or worried and helping to regulate those emotions for them will help to decrease those fears in the long run. It is important that parents take a child’s fear to heart and not dismiss it- even if it seems unrealistic, trivial, or unnecessary to the parent for the child to feel afraid. When parents are able to see the world through their child’s eyes, be with them in their fear and help them feel safe, children are able to overcome normal responses to stress and develop internal coping skills to keep anxiety at bay.
Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at www.headfirstdallas.com
Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or firstname.lastname@example.org