I have been asked by several parents about varying degrees of anxious behaviors in their children. Although I can not give anything other than thoughts and suggestions, I think it is important to have objective opinions and thoughts when facing something that is difficult to assess.
One of the most common issues brought to me during my time in private practice was children exhibiting anxious behaviors. Parents reported anxiety of all levels, from the minimal such as nail biting or attachment to an object to the severe of pulling out hair and panic attacks. In recent questions from parents, the behaviors have been biting holes in clothing, fear of animals, and social anxiety when in strange situations.
Clearly, the issues are complex and require individual assessment. However, there are common threads and considerations that can be helpful in any scenario that I would like to share. Here are three of my recommendations if you witness anxious behaviors in your child.
1. Determine the trigger. It is always helpful to identify what causes the behaviors to emerge and when they are the most severe. This will often require making a written or mental note of what occurred immediately before the anxious episode. Over the course of a few weeks, the trigger should be clear. This will help you proactively prepare for the trigger in the future, or eliminate it if possible. I would like to mention, however, that protecting your child from ever feeling anxious or fearful is not healthy either. A child needs opportunities to build coping skills and process emotions, so being afraid every so often is actually healthy. Anxiety only becomes an issue if it results in extreme behaviors or occurs frequently.
2. Avoid questioning your child about it. As I have mentioned in several previous articles, children do not have the verbal capacity to explain emotions until they are about 12 years old. Asking them to tell you why they are scared will not help in addressing the problem. From observation and intuition, you should be able to conclude what is producing the anxiety. If it only occurs outside of the home or in your absence, ask adults who are present for the episodes to make notes in a journal for you. Often, discussing a distressing topic with your child creates more anxiety, especially if they are not able to explain the problem well.
3. Acknowledge the feelings or behaviors. Express to your child that you understand what they are feeling. Considering they are most likely struggling to identify what they are feeling and why, it will first serve as a learning opportunity for them. If they hear you say, “You are really worried about that” or “You seem a little scared” or “You are biting your clothes: I wonder if you are thinking about something”, they learn to express themselves with those words. It gives a label to their emotions. Second, telling them what they are expressing helps them to feel that you are paying attention and know how they feel. If they do not know any other way to tell you that they are anxious, and you are missing the cues, imagine how frustrating and lonely that must feel for your child. Finally, by helping them to feel understood but not fixing the problem, you are giving them the chance to handle the situation on their own. Children build independence and problem solving skills in challenging situations.
Anxiety is a normal reaction when things do not make sense to a child. The world can be very scary and confusing, especially when a child does not have the ability to communicate effectively. By doing these simple things, you can give your child the necessary tools to overcome anxiety in a healthy manner.