Childhood Anxiety: The Seven Things You Need to Know

by Dr. Lisa Ghent

Parents are often at a loss when it comes to children suffering from anxiety. It’s important to realize that some anxiety is normal, and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Given that anxiety can be a normal and expected response to change and the unknown, it’s important to accept that all of us, now and again, suffer from anxiety. What is more important than feeling anxious is the frequency with which it occurs and how you and your child cope with it.

What can you to do to help your child, and when should you seek professional advice? I’ve outlined seven steps that I use in practice with parents to help them deal with this issue.

Teach your child to recognize the feeling of anxiety:

Your child may not have the vocabulary to describe what they are feeling, and may not recognize anxiety when it happens. This is something you need to teach them, in words and descriptions that are age appropriate. For example many people feel anxiety in their stomach. You may describe it as butterflies, bubbles, a squeezing feeling, or discomfort. When you recognize it, ask your child to close their eyes and describe where and what they are feeling. If they need help, start at their head and move to their feet, providing words that they can relate to. Common places where anxiety is felt are the head, face, throat, chest, stomach, hands and legs.

Assure your child that they are normal

Anxiety is something that everyone experiences in certain situations. Help your child to understand that. Kids feel more secure (and often less anxious) if they know they aren’t alone. Share your own experiences, and tell them what you do to cope with anxiety.

Teach your child coping skills

Once your child can recognize that they are experiencing anxiety, teach them skills to manage it. For example, taking a small time out to do deep breathing is effective for most people of any age. Deep breathing helps to shift our bodies into a state of relaxation, and is something that can be done anywhere. There are many other ways of coping with anxiety in the moment; experiment with different techniques to find out what works best for your child.

Model the behaviour

The number one piece of advice I give parents on just about everything, is that you should practice what you preach. Your child learns the most from watching you. Kids observe us and listen to everything we say. They take in all that information and assimilate it into their own behaviour. If you are showing your child healthy ways of managing stress and anxiety, they will follow suit.

Try not to let your worry show

I realize it’s hard not to, but showing your child you are worried about their anxiety will likely make the situation worse. Don’t assume that your child is abnormally anxious; assume that what they are experiencing is a normal and expected part of growing up and that you have been presented with the opportunity to help them develop skills to alleviate anxiety, skills that will last them a lifetime.

Provide the building blocks

The cornerstones of a healthy childhood are good nutrition, restorative sleep and lots of play. Reduce or eliminate added sugar in their diet, ensure they are “eating the colours of a rainbow:, ensure adequate sleep (most kids need 10 – 12 hours a night), and spend time daily playing and laughing with your kids.

When it’s time to get help

While anxiety is normal, sometimes it impacts your child’s daily life in a negative and disruptive way. If this is the case and you have already tried your best to implement the suggestions listed here, then it’s time to get help, particularly if any of the following is negatively impacted: eating, sleeping, socialization, or education. Don’t be ashamed if you need help—it doesn’t make you any less of a parent. Anxiety can be successfully managed. Naturopathic doctors have many tools to help both you and your child cope with anxiety in a natural, holistic way.

Dr Lisa Ghent is a naturopathic doctor currently practicing in Tsawwassen