By JENNIFER DRYDEN, LPC, LMFT
Anxiety has become a childhood epidemic in our country. Even before the pandemic, anxiety was becoming more common among children and adolescents, increasing 27 percent from 2016 to 2019. According to researchers from the Health Resources and Services Administration, by 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2 percent) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems.
One of the major roles of parents is guiding children in developing their social and emotional skills. Parents are instrumental in helping children learn to regulate their emotions. Moms and dads often ask for guidance to determine whether their children’s behaviors and emotional expressions related to anxiety and worry are “normal,” or whether they need to seek counseling for their child. Anxiety affects everyone differently. Here are some tips and advice to consider when parenting a child who is inclined to worry.
Some degree of childhood fear is normal. Some normal fears in the preschool and elementary years include separation anxiety, big dogs, monsters, fire drills, burglars, storms, and illness. Normal childhood fears resolve themselves. Most often, kids outgrow them.
If your child has some anxiety or worries that are not so severe that they impair their ability to function, here are some things you can do:
◼ Talk about their fears when they are calm, but don’t dwell on them.
◼ Help your child develop an emotional vocabulary, and model for them appropriate ways to express pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
◼ Be sure to manage your own anxiety effectively and model ways to calm yourself and regulate emotions.
◼ Teach your child deep breathing/calming techniques.
◼ Get plenty of exercise.
◼ Empower kids to come up with ways to help themselves when they feel worried.
◼ Teach your child to talk back to their worry and not to let their worry have control.
◼ Make healthy food choices.
◼ Have fun! Sometimes when kids are anxious or emotional, they live in such a heightened state that they aren’t participating in fun activities. Play games, read books and laugh with each other. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22.
◼ Keep a journal remembering the blessings and faithfulness of God. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” – Lamentations 3:22-23.
◼ Pray for and with your children. Help them learn the truth that all of our worries will look big until they are put next to the living God.
However, there are times when a child’s fears and anxiety grow in severity and impair their functioning, and it becomes necessary to seek professional help. Here are some warning signs that adults and parents can look for that might indicate a need for additional intervention:
◼ Ongoing fears regarding the safety of parents and caretakers
◼ Refusal to go to school
◼ Avoiding social situations
◼ Frequent physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches)
◼ Extreme worry about being away from home
◼ Tantrums or severe panic when separated from parents
◼ Sleep problems (lack of sleep or nightmares/night terrors)
◼ Extreme fear that lasts for months regarding a specific thing
The earlier anxiety disorders are addressed, the better the outcome. Early intervention can prevent future issues such as low self-concept, poor academic performance, and social impairment. Ask your pediatrician, school counselor or other childcare professional for help, resources and an objective opinion if you are uncertain about anxiety and your child. Adults who spend time with our kids on a regular basis, including teachers, coaches, Sunday school teachers and others, can also offer valuable insight that can be pivotal in further understanding our children and their emotional needs.
Jennifer Dryden has served First Presbyterian Day School in Jackson as the school counselor for more than 20 years and is licensed in both professional counseling and marriage and family therapy. She graduated from Southern Methodist University and holds a master’s degree in counseling from The University of Southern Mississippi. Mrs. Dryden visits each first- through sixth-grade class at FPDS monthly to discuss various topics such as wise choices, bullying, and integrity. She teaches Integrity Time in kindergarten weekly. In addition to classroom instruction, Mrs. Dryden meets with students, families and teachers as needed.