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In recent days, anxiety has been at an all-time high not just in our country but across the world. Think your child hasn’t been anxious? Don’t be so sure. On the podcast, we’ve recently started a series on how to defeat anxiety during times of crisis. I recently recorded a podcast episode with my son taking his “emotional temperature” in the wake of spring break being extended, school-going online instead of in person, and being unable to socialize as normal with peers (Helping a Teenager with Anxiety). After talking with him, I knew we needed to have further discussion about how to recognize anxiety in children and help them.
How to Recognize Anxiety in Our Children
While parents often try to shield their children from the adult stressors they face, our global situation has made it impossible to adequately shield our children. For many of them, this is the first major crises they have experienced, or the first crisis of this magnitude. But that’s not all bad—we get the opportunity to teach our children how to manage difficult life circumstances in a healthy way, so that they can be better prepared to face trials in the future.
Before we can talk about how to help our children through this, or any other anxiety-provoking time, we first need to talk about how to recognize anxiety in our children. But realize that you may have two or more children and they may all express anxiety differently from the other(s).
Below are some common signs and symptoms of anxiety in children:
- Feeling nervous
- Feeling jittery
- Feeling shaky
- Having “butterflies” in their stomach
- Frequent stomach aches or headaches
- Irritability or agitation
- Being clingy
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Racing heart
- Clammy hands
- Not wanting to do certain activities
- Refusing to talk or do things
- Talking excessively (more than usual)
- Excessive questioning
- Thinking about the same thing over and over again
Some of these more physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, racing heart, and “butterflies” in the stomach are the body’s engagement of the “fight or flight” response and results in triggering the release of brain chemicals into the body. These chemicals help prepare our bodies to deal with real danger. But they can also occur even when no real danger exists.
How to Help Anxious Children
Once parents know how to recognize anxiety in their children, they usually want to know how to help them.
More than anything you can be sure that your children are watching you and listening to what you say, even when you think they are otherwise occupied. If parents are worried, fearful, or anxious, they will likely do or say things that model anxiety for their children, and in essence, give their child something to worry about.
15 Ways to Help Children Experiencing Anxiety
- Be careful of your words and actions. Model appropriate ways of managing anxiety. Our children are listening, and they are paying attention both to what we say and do.
- Ask open-ended, non-leading questions. Don’t assume you know what they are thinking or feeling. Through your open-ended questions, try to assess the cause of their concerns.
- Listen without judgment. Allow them to freely express their feelings.
- If necessary, help them to put words to their feelings. It’s often difficult for children to have the vocabulary for how they feel. You can help them identify the difference between worry, fear, anxiety, doubt, discouragement, frustration, loneliness, etc. For younger children, you may need to show them a feeling chart to help them identify their feelings. (Try this How Are You Feeling? Poster and Magnet.
- Provide age-appropriate factual information in response to their questions.
- When anxiety escalates, offer a comforting hug, and help them take deep relaxing breaths. We cannot physiologically be anxious and relaxed at the same time. Anxiety makes us focus on the future, but controlled breathing returns our focus to the present and what we can control.
- When a child is nervous or anxious about an upcoming event, keep the anticipatory period very short. For example, if your child is afraid of going to the dentist, don’t tell them weeks or days before their appointment, rather perhaps the morning of.
- Turn off the news in the home. Minimize negative and anxiety-provoking input that your children can observe.
- Help encourage a schedule or routine, and good care of their physical bodies. Provide nutritious meals, maintain a regular bedtime, and foster frequent physical exercise. All these things help reduce anxiety.
- In response to their concerns, set positive but realistic expectations and share biblical truths. For example, if a child fears that the family won’t have enough food, remind them that you are trusting in God to supply all your needs, just as He promises in His word (Philippians 4:19). If a child is concerned that they will get sick, share what you are doing to minimize that risk, but also share that God has promised to be our healer, and you are trusting Him to do so (Psalm 41:3, Psalm 107:19-20, Exodus 23:25, Jeremiah 17:14, Psalm 30:2, Jeremiah 33:6).
- Encourage them or help them to write down Scriptures that encourage them and help trade worry, fear, and anxiety for God’s peace. Free Download: 40 Scriptures to Fight against Worry, Fear and Anxiety with the truth from God’s Word
- Many fears/anxieties in both children and adults result from feeling out of control, and not knowing what to do. Remind your children that this time of difficulty did not take God by surprise, and He promises in Jeremiah 29:11 that He knows the plans He has for you, and they are plans to prosper you and not to harm you, and include a hope and a future.
- Do not avoid things simply because they make your child anxious. This inadvertently sends the message that they should be afraid. Instead, be supportive in helping your child take small, simple steps.
- Express your unconditional love and support, and remind them of other difficult situations in the past that they successfully got through.
- If you notice several of the above signs and symptoms occurring at the same time, and they continue for several weeks or more, despite your best efforts to help, or you notice things getting worse rather than better, consider seeking professional help from a mental health provider.
Other Helpful Resources to Fight Anxiety
As a free resource to help you better manage anxiety either in yourself or your child, we have put together a free printable for How to Fight Fearful/Anxious Thoughts and Win!
For even more information about how to recognize anxiety and how to trade worry, fear, and anxiety for God’s peace, consider reading a copy of my new book Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises.
In response to the recent global crisis, we have released a series of podcast episodes on our podcast “Your Hope-Filled Perspective with Dr. Michelle Bengtson” about how to defeat anxiety during times of crisis. Begins with Episode 50. Listen to the Podcast on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast platform.
Resource to Break Anxiety’s Grip
No question, we have a lot to worry about. Children, jobs, homes, health, finances, and more. The solution isn’t to rid ourselves of the sources of anxiety – as if we could. Instead, we need to recognize that anxiety originates from a spiritual influence and that we can fight back using the God-given weapons of power, love, and a sound mind.
We can discover true peace in an age of anxiety.
In Breaking Anxiety’s Grip, Dr. Michelle Bengtson shares her own story of emerging from the battle with anxiety as well as the stories of others. She reminds you of your identity as a follower of Christ and of the peace he promises you in spite of everything.
She provides tools to cope with the crushing emotional burden of anxiety now and, more importantly, shows you how to reclaim God’s peace as a way of life so that you can break anxiety’s grip.
Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ChristianBooks.com, Books-A-Million, and other fine book retailers.
Click here to learn more: Breaking Anxiety’s Grip.