Anxiety in Children – When is it Normal? What can I do?

written by Kip Zirkel, Ph.D.

I have had an increasing number of parents expressing worry about the anxiety they see in their children. They tell me that their kids are fearful about leaving the house, clingy with their parents, pitching fits when a parent has to leave, refusing to sleep in their own beds at night. Many say that their kids have developed physical symptoms such as tummy aches, headaches, or bowel problems.

Is this normal? Well, yes and no. Separation anxiety is quite common, usually showing up around 7-8 months of age and tending to diminish around age 4-5. However many kids don’t easily ‘get over it’ and symptoms may continue into the mid to late elementary school years. And with the current pandemic it is no surprise that these symptoms are increasing.

Separation anxiety is actually a good thing, and shows that a child indeed knows where his or her ‘safe places and safe people’ are. And given the added stresses on families now with the pandemic, it would be surprising if your child DIDN’T show any signs of separation anxiety!

There is evidence that a predisposition to anxiety can be inherited–anxious parents often have anxious children. There is also some consistent research showing that about 15% of all kids have a shy and sensitive temperament no matter what a parent’s personality happens to be. These kids will be more inclined to show anxiety symptoms nowadays related to the pandemic and the stress it has caused families.

Many parents report a sort of vicious circle occurring, where an anxious and fearful child will cause you to become more anxious and worried, which is then picked up by the child, further increasing their own anxiety and clinginess!

Changes in customary routines may trigger anxiety in kids also. A change in a parent’s work demands and availability, a caregiver moving away, a new sitter or daycare provider coming into the child’s life, all these can trigger anxiety and panic in kids. Most kids however tend to work through these disruptions and adjust, but many have trouble doing so.

There are things you can do to help your child become less fearful and more confident. I will list these below:

1. First of all, children do reflect their parent’s moods and anxiety. So try your best to ACT less anxious around your children, even if it means putting on a good act.

2. Say encouraging and supportive things to your child–before a potential meltdown occurs, because trying to reason with a child who is in the throws of a tantrum or panicky crying spell is like trying to reason with a drunk. Remind your child about all the positive traits they have, and how proud you are of them when they accomplish something no matter how small it may seem.

3. Some parents, out of frustration, take a more hard-line approach, especially parents who are feeling at the end of their rope. “Oh for Pete’s sake, knock it off and get in the #&%%$* car!” Actually some kids find this reassuring and often will indeed ‘knock it off.’ I cannot tell you however if this approach will work on your child. Often dads have a better success rate with this, given most dads’ tendency to talk less and tolerate less dissent. (Yeah, this sounds sexist, no need to remind me.)

4. Remember to design small experiences of success for your child. If for example they are playing alone and you leave the room for a bit, and they keep playing happily, be sure to praise them for how capable and brave they are! Don’t prolong goodbyes–use the “kiss and go” method when leaving your child with a sitter or daycare provider. Use humor and distraction to derail your child when they start to ‘crank up’ their panic around you.

5. You can do this while at the same time expressing empathy for your child, reminding them how you yourself were anxious and afraid, and how you will always love them no matter what, and how you know that someday they will grow up and be less afraid. These kind of short talks are best done when your child seems happy, or when you are driving with them in the car, or when you are tucking them in bed at night.

6. I forgot to mention what I had sent out in an earlier email; namely, the need to turn off the TV so that your child is not exposed to bad news day in and day out. Also, put on music that your child likes, it may help their moods in a kind of subliminal fashion. And try some aromatherapy–there is some evidence that taking a sniff of lavender will calm not only you but also your child! I am sure you have found other techniques to ‘nudge’ your child in a positive direction.

7. Be sure to maintain consistent and predictable routines in your household. Routines are one of the best “medications” you can give your child. Consistent schedules during the day reduce anxiety for both parent and child.

8. Have your child do a little art therapy or play therapy–if they are afraid of the pandemic, or of some other fearful thing, have them draw pictures showing their feelings about it. Or get down on the floor with their toys and help them re-create some worrisome scenario–such as a child saying goodbye to a parent who has to leave for work. Try communicating a more lighthearted view of what is worrying your child: “Oh it must be terrible being a tiny virus, floating around in the air, getting sucked up into somebody’s nose, ewww gross!” You get the picture. Be creative.

Finally, remember that this too will pass. Nothing lasts forever. Kids get over moods and in time they will be more normal. As will you!