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Parenting: How To Help Your Anxious Child

Anxiety is part of a normal healthy childhood and the process of growing up — but sometimes it can spiral. For a child, finding their way in the world, who they are and how they fit in is never completely secure.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is the feeling you get when you’re worried or scared about something. It is a natural, human feeling of fear or panic but it normally passes and we calm down and feel better.

Small amounts of worry and fear can help keep us safe and even protect us from danger. But sometimes anxiety can make us feel like things are worse than they actually are and can feel overwhelming. Constant worry can lead to prolonged anxiety, making life feel like a spiral of worry, fear and dread.

Anxiety can also prevent your child from doing things they enjoy. They may feel worried or panicky in a situation that is not stressful.

Anxiety signs and symptoms

Anxiety symptoms can be complicated and may even arise long after a stressful event. It is often associated with stress and can bring on a panic attack. Types of anxiety include separation anxiety, phobias, social anxiety and intense fear leading to panic attacks.

Symptoms range from physical...

  • Restlessness, agitation, fatigue
  • Shortness of breath, headaches or feeling faint
  • A racing heart and sometimes high blood pressure
  • Feeling fidgety, trembling or feeling weak in the legs
  • Feeling sick to your stomach 
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Dry mouth, excessive sweating or feeling hot. 

... to emotional and mental:

  • Struggling to focus on things – lack of concentration
  • Feeling panicky, nervous or on edge
  • Feeling overwhelmed or a sense of dread
  • Feeling out of control in a situation
  • Feeling tired and irritable

Anxiety feels different for everyone. Be alert to the signs of anxiety so you can seek help and care for your child early if needed.

Ways to help your child cope with anxiety

If your child is feeling anxious, here are some things you can do to help them cope:

  1. Explore the feeling together: Ask your child to observe their feelings of anxiety and tell you – what is happening when they feel anxious, how do they feel, how long does the feeling last and what might trigger their feeling anxious? The more they can understand the feeling and feel safe, the easier it can be to manage it.
  2. Shift their focus to something pleasant: Asking questions like “What would you like to have for dinner?” can help them feel empowered and to focus on the present.
  3. Support healthy habits: Sleep and eating well can positively influence anxious feelings, as we often feel exhausted after feeling anxious for prolonged periods of time. Experts recommend nine to 12 hours of sleep a night for 6- to 12-year-olds. Teens need eight to 10 hours a night. To protect sleep time, limit screen time at night and avoid keeping digital devices in the bedroom.
  4. Help them use their senses: Ask your child to sit comfortably and slowly breathe in and out. Now ask them to name some non-distressing things: 4 things they can see, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste. Our senses are powerful tools to deal with feelings of panic, anxiety and stress.
  5. Practice belly breathing: Often when we are anxious our breathing becomes shallow.  Abdominal breathing is calming, helping us to draw oxygen deep into our lungs.

An easy breathing exercise in 3 steps

Place your hand on your stomach. Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in through your nose and 5 seconds breathing out, through your mouth. Tell your child when they inhale, they are blowing up their stomach softly like a balloon, and when they exhale, the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.

When to seek help

If anxiety is impacting your child’s daily life, professional treatment can help. A school counselor, pediatrician or other health-care provider can refer you to a mental health professional for an assessment and advice on treatment that is right for your child. With counseling or talk therapy, they can speak with someone about what they are feeling and ways to cope. But with serious and chronic anxiety, medication may also help.

Learn more about how to support a child's mental health — and how to find help.


TOP PHOTO: Understanding your child's anxiety is the first step in helping free them from it. © UNICEF/UNI432199
TOP PHOTO: Understanding your child's anxiety is the first step in helping free them from it. © UNICEF/UNI432199