Childhood anxiety is a common part of growing up. In early childhood it often involves separation anxiety from caregivers, worries about being harmed, and bedtime fears of scary thoughts or dreams.
In middle childhood, kids often worry about being good enough – academically, athletically, behaviorally, socially. They may begin to struggle with self-doubts that develop into performance anxieties or social anxieties that can get acutely worse in middle school.
In adolescence, teenagers worry constantly about fitting in with peers, belonging, and also finding their unique strengths and identity. Their minds become more adult-like, which unfortunately includes constantly racing minds: worrying about what they have to do, how well they’ll do, how they’ll fit it all in, what others think of them, and if they’re really worthy enough (for parents, teachers, peers, intimate partners). Self-doubts can snowball into self-denigrating thoughts and self-defeating behaviors.
When Anxiety Runs Amok
Moments of anxiety are completely normal for all of us. They come and they go. But when they persist – with high frequency or intensity – and when they start to interfere with daily functioning – with the child doing his or her “job” – then it may be time to seek some professional help.
One in 8 children suffer from an Anxiety Disorder of some kind. That is, their bodies get tense, tight, jittery, or even sick. Their minds race with repeated ruminations – worrying about “What if’s…” and “Woulda, coulda, shoulda’s…” They avoid or hide or lash out in stressful situations. Their worlds get smaller as they shrink from facing the challenges – and even joys – of life. Parent, teacher, and student frustrations all grow as the child seems to want to do well, but increasingly is at a loss for how to face and overcome the acute stress they feel.
What can you do? In my Mindful Solutions coaching programs, I help parents and kids learn to transform their relationship with anxiety and stress – clearly, calmly, and compassionately. Mindful solutions are based on the “3-A’s” of applying mindfulness to everyday problems:
- Awareness – clear attention to what’s working and what’s not in this moment
- Acceptance – making peace with what is here, now – and what you can and can’t do about it
- Aligned Action – making conscious choices for how to thoughtfully respond, rather than emotionally react, to the situation at hand.
5 Remedies for Childhood Anxiety
When it comes to dealing successfully with your child’s anxiety, you can teach your child how to find their own mindful solutions by using the “5-R’s”:
- Recognize – Pause to notice, here and now, the tensions in your body and the thoughts in your mind. Notice with kind and curious attention – what is going on around you (the situational triggers) and within you (sensations and perceptions) in this moment.
- Relax – Let your body become still and quiet. See what you notice now. Anchor your attention in slow, quiet belly breaths. Don’t try to relax. Just let your body breath itself, naturally, and observe with more kindness and curiosity.
- Refocus – Once you’ve taken the time and space to relax your body, you can more easily refocus your mind. When we’re super anxious, our mind distorts reality – thinking things are more likely to go bad, and go much worse, than is realistic. Use “detective thinking” to challenge your irrational worries: “Is it true?” “Is it likely?” “Is it so bad?” “Is it helpful?” Now you’re ready to refocus on more realistic and helpful plans.
- Respond – Face your fears, gradually, in small, doable steps. After you “Relax and Refocus”, you can step into doing what you need to do, even when you’re feeling anxious. Pause. Breathe. Proceed.
- Reward – Celebrate every small success! Focus on what you can do, what you are doing, more than what you can’t or aren’t doing yet. Offer praise and positive little rewards along the way, reinforcing resilience over anxiety, wellness over illness.
Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, mindfulness teacher, loving husband and dad. He invites you to join in an ongoing conversation that seeks to restore sanity to humanity – one child at a time. Join us at www.AMindfulVillage.com.