Ask the Expert: Calming the Anxious Child
By Ronnie Ginsberg, Psy.D.
I have a child in my classroom who suffers from symptoms of anxiety and stress. Isn’t stress generally an adult problem and what can I do to help?
–Tricia Fielding, Sandy, UT
Anxiety is a part of life. Stress produces a great deal of anxiety, which fires up all our physiological systems. Our heart races, our skin sweats, our stomach churns, and our blood pounds. Despite our misguided views as adults that children have very little to be nervous about, they too have multiple and conflicting external demands on their time and internal perceptions of themselves that push them to succeed and accomplish at all cost.
Stress is usually used to define a response to a specific circumstance. Anxiety is often used when a situation that evokes these feelings is more vague or ongoing. Some children are more prone to anxiety than others, often both because they react more strongly physiologically to a situation (an inborn trait) and because they don’t yet have the coping skills other kids their age have developed to help them de-escalate their feelings. However, there are ways of helping even very young children transcend feelings of anxiety. Here are some tips.
· Watch your own response to stressful situations. We’re all aware of how toddlers and preschoolers look to us to learn what their reactions should be. Older children take their cues from us as well. Learn to calm yourself and react as placidly as possible in your day-to-day life, and you will be quelling the anxiety in your children also.
· Give choices and encourage self-control. Children who feel in charge of various areas of their lives are less likely to feel helpless in general, and constant helplessness is a prime ingredient to a generalized feeling of anxiety. Encouraging even small steps towards decision-making and following through adds immeasurably toward a sense of control and comfort in the environment.
· Establish predictable routines. It is reassuring for children if their lives follow some sort of predictable schedule. That doesn’t mean being rigid no matter what, but if bedtime and bath time and wakeup time and dinner time usually follow a certain routine, most children will find that comforting.
· Use anticipation to help quell anxiety. Let children know ahead of time when the routine will vary. It helps to know beforehand that you’ll be making a visit to the fire station as part of a class field trip, for example, rather than spending the entire day at school. However, don’t inform young children too far in advance. Their elastic sense of time could lead to more anxiety if the future circumstances being discussed are mentioned too far ahead.
· Encourage competence. Feeling truly good at something helps calm the jitters when you’re faced with something else you’re not sure you’re good at. Competence breeds confidence, and confidence helps disarm anxiety.
· Teach relaxation techniques. Practice breath control, meditation, and visualization techniques with your children.
· Keep expectations realistic. Make sure that what you and your children’s parents expect of them are things they can actually achieve.
· Watch out for the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Few children of any age will announce that they’re under too much pressure. Instead, you will notice a change in appetite; depression; sleep problems (ranging from trouble falling asleep to frequently waking up during the night); headaches; or clinginess.
· Know when to get outside help. There are children for whom the tips above may not be enough. These children may be under an extraordinary amount of stress from home or school situations, or may be physiologically more vulnerable to anxiety than their peers. Counseling can be very helpful in such situations. Through therapy, children can learn to decatastrophize their worries, relax their bodies, and calm their minds.
Ronnie Ginsberg, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist and director of training at an outpatient mental health clinic in Massachusetts. She also consults with preschool teachers and parents to help smooth transitions in normal child development, and helps modify classroom and home environments to meet individual children's social, emotional, and cognitive needs.