Coping Through the Anxieties of Being a Kid Today

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

As parents, we tend to find comfort in our time with other adults, especially those who are parents, walking the same journey we are. It not only offers us a break from the craziness that life with children and work brings, but it also offers us a time to know “we are not alone.” Although technology and social media are a benefit for knowledge gathering, they have also become a way we search for advice on many of our parenting needs. This in itself can be beneficial and detrimental. With social media, we find out everything that the Joneses are doing, which often leads to us having less confidence and questioning the choices we make as a parent. Someone’s baby eats nothing but organic, or our friend was able to potty train her son in one day. How about the girl at work whose child is reading chapter books at age four, or the neighbor’s son who is on four baseball teams? It is enough to drive you crazy, and a bit anxious. And then we wonder why there are so many children struggling with anxiety.

Child anxiety, for most children, is just a form of stress. It can be exhibited physically, emotionally or behaviorally, and often stems from worrying about the “what if?” Anxiety is a natural human emotion that we all experience at different points in our lives. However, when it starts to take over our ability to do some of our typical daily functions or keeps us out of social situations, it can be more of an issue. In children, we often see signs of anxiety through changes in eating or sleeping, difficulty with focus and attention in school, withdrawing from family and friends, and behavioral issues. For our children with sensory issues, we often see these issues intensify, or manifest as a reversion in tolerance or self-organization abilities.

Once parents and other adults understand what is causing the anxiety, there are many ways they can help ease the stress children may feel. Here are just a few ideas to help lessen the burden of anxiety, but always know that if it becomes too much for your child or family to cope with, seeking out medical services can be beneficial.

Provide a Positive Example: As parents, it may seem as if you are always under the microscope, but it is true, children are learning from your example. Therefore, demonstrating positive stress-coping strategies is important. Whether you cope by exercising, reading, taking some quiet time for reflection, or any other hobby that can be an outlet, children need see you in action. In addition, it is important to demonstrate calming strategies during your acute moments of frustration. For example, decreasing that urge to yell at the other drivers on the road when you are in a hurry to get somewhere shows children that you do not need to lash out upon initial aggravation, rather take a few deep breaths and move along. However, completely hiding your stress from your child is not healthy; allow children to see your emotions and how you work through them. At times, it may help to provide a simple explanation, such as “Mom is really stressed and bogged down with work. I am going to take a quiet walk to help calm my mind” or “Dad is worried about Grandpa’s surgery, so I am going to go mow the lawn to take my mind off it.” These are ways for your child to see you too get worried and stressed, but find ways to deal with it.

Acknowledge and Validate: Just like it is not good to hide all your emotions from you child, it is equally important to make sure you do not encourage them to hide theirs. Always listen to what is bothering your child, and whether you think it is foolish or not, validate her feelings. Let her know that you understand something is making her feeling worried. Do not dismiss it with “you are OK, don’t worry.” This actually can make children more stressed and does not truly give the child a sense of security. If your child is fearful of an upcoming event or trying something new, sharing an example of a time you may have experienced the same feelings and how you worked through them could be beneficial.

Minimize the Notice: There has been a lot of focus on letting children know what to expect and what will be happening next. This is a very helpful strategy, especially in children who do not tolerate transitions well within a small time frame. However, for children who have issues with anxiety, letting them know of an event that causes anxiety and worry two weeks prior to can be more harmful. It allows them the extra time to worry and have their minds think about different things that can happen. Therefore, giving them “just the right amount” of notice is important.

Do Not Avoid Those Situations: Completely avoiding situations and events that cause worry and fear will not help children increase their tolerance of them. Forcing them into the situation will not either. It is a fine line of balance to learn. This can be very difficult, especially if you have a younger child and you are going through anxieties for the first time. For example, if a child is fearful of dogs, you cannot always avoid going places where dogs may be present. Therefore, if your child is invited to a party at the home of someone who has a dog, allow her to see the dog from a distance, and watch how it interacts with other people. In addition, help that person know about your child’s fear and come up with a plan, rather than avoid the invitation.

Have a Routine: Regardless of the situation, most children do better with a routine in place. That means having a regular structure to your days, which includes getting enough sleep. Children tolerate changes and can cope better with enough sleep. Having a routine does not mean you have to be rigid, but it does mean there is some sense of knowing what is going to happen when.

Do Not Over-Schedule: When your plate is full, it’s easy to come unraveled because it just seems as if you cannot balance everything you have to do. This is true for children, too. Therefore, although all the sport teams and lessons seem important, children who are provided with downtime as well as social time tend to handle the day-to-day stressors of being a child better. In addition, remember that your ability to be a positive example of how you handle your schedule will also play into your child’s reaction.

It is amazing that we are talking about stress reduction and strategies for coping in children these days, but this is a growing and ongoing problem in our society. From friends to school and sports to society in general, children are carrying so much inside them. Therefore, make sure you help your child to be a kid, and use some of these strategies to ease the pain for everyone.