Anxiety in children: why saying calm down isn’t enough for anxiety attacks and anxiety symptoms (guest post)

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Dr. Mom blog explores anxiety in childhood, panic attacks, symptoms of anxiety and anxiety attacks in children.

We all experience anxiety symptoms from time to time! It is a natural and normal part of stress and our everyday lives. Anxiety in children is also a part of normal development. In fact, anxiety is our body’s natural automatic response telling us to pay attention and respond to a “danger”.   But when does anxiety become worrisome? Are there things that we can do to help our children at home? When children are experiencing severe anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, and anxiety attacks, it may be time to seek out the help of a professional.

All children experience anxiety symptoms. In fact, it is healthy for children to experience anxiety and then learn how to react and respond to it. However, anxiety can become a problem if it occurs too often or interferes with everyday life. For example, if your child is continually unable to attend school because of fear of leaving their parents, this would be cause for concern.

When Might Anxiety in Children Arise?

The anxiety symptoms children experience tend to vary based upon their age. It is common for toddlers to fear strangers, separation from their parents, or be fearful of the dark. School aged children often might fear injury to themselves or others, be fearful of natural events or disasters, or even the first day of school and meeting new people. In adolescence, anxiety often comes from concerns of ‘fitting in’ and social competence. Anxiety in children might also result from recent life changes such as moving to a new home or city, a family event (such as a death) or family changes (such as divorce).

However, these ‘normal’ anxieties should not be debilitating in nature. That is, children should be able to cope with the anxiety and, with support, able to work through them.

When should I worry about my child with anxiety?

As a parent, you shouldn’t be concerned if your child experiences anxiety symptoms from time to time. However, some children may experience “anxiety attacks” that can be debilitating and impairing.  If symptoms of anxiety start to become a daily struggle, and interfere with you and your child’s daily life, further support may be needed.

What does anxiety in children look like?

Children often have a difficult time identifying their feelings and communicating them to adults. Sometimes what they are feeling might look like something else.  Anxiety in children often include physical symptoms such as tummy aches or headaches. As a parent, this can be very confusing!

Symptoms of anxiety in children may also be expressed in many different ways. In fact, it may not always look like typical anxiety. Things like sleep difficulties, crying, anger, constant fatigue, tantrums, aggression, inattention, and opposition can all be a result from underlying anxiety in children.

How can I help my child with anxiety?

There are a number of different strategies you can try with your child to help them manage and work through their symptoms of anxiety. One of the most important things to remember about these strategies is to practice, practice, practice! It is best to practice these strategies when your child is calm so that they can be easily utilized when they are anxious. The better it is learned when calm, the better they will be able to use it during times of stress.

When your child is experiencing symptoms of anxiety or anxiety attacks, try to avoid saying things like:

“Calm down” or “Stop it”

Saying “calm down” or “stop it” might minimize the feelings your child is experiencing.

Instead, you can try saying things like :

“You are safe. I will help you become calm using our strategies.”

As the parent, try not to let your anxious child avoid the anxiety-provoking situation completely. Encouraging your child to approach the situation while utilizing their strategies can be a good way to help them ‘face their fears’ in a safe and supportive manner. 

Strategies for helping my child’s symptoms of anxiety:

The following strategies may be helpful to you and your child when managing anxiety.

Deep breathing:

Deep breathing helps to focus your child on their breath. Often when experiencing symptoms of anxiety, or anxiety attacks, our breathing becomes shallow and short. By focusing on one’s breath, we consciously calm our bodies, which helps to calm our minds. For young children imagining they are smelling a flower, then blowing out a candle may help with learning:

You can also use things like bubbles and pinwheels to practice the ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’ of deep breathing.

Progressive muscle relaxation:

Progressive muscle relaxation is the systematic tensing and releasing of muscle groups in the body. When experiencing symptoms of anxiety or anxiety attacks, we may unconsciously tense our muscles. Progressive muscle relaxation can help alleviate some of the physical symptoms of anxiety such as headaches and stomach aches and helps us to calm our bodies and minds.

Stress balls or ‘squishy toys’ are great tools to use for this exercise. Follow these steps with your children:

  • Step 1:
    • Take a slow deep breath in.
    • Squeeze the muscle (or the ball) as hard as you can and count to 5. Your muscles might shake and this is ok.
    • Try to ONLY squeeze the muscle you are tensing. 
  • Step 2:
    • Relax the tensed muscle.
    • Exhale as you do this and try to feel the difference between a tensed and relaxed muscle.

Try tensing and releasing different muscles your body such as the shoulders, hands, and mouth.

Other calming strategies that can also help include yoga, listening to calming music, and going for walks.

Storytelling and use of “social stories”:

Try including all of the above strategies in a ‘social story’ that you can read with your children. Social stories are great ways to teach targeted strategies, as they are written specifically for your child. They are easy to write and the simpler they are, the better. An example might be:

“Sometimes I get worried and upset. I get worried about leaving my mom and dad when I go to day care. When this happens I get anxious and I worry what will happen next. When I feel this way I can try to stay calm. I can:

Take 5 deep breaths. Squeeze a ball. Go for a walk. Listen to my favourite music.

I feel better after I use my strategies to stay calm. My mom or dad will be back soon to get me and I can continue to have a good day with my friends.”

There are all fantastic strategies to start helping your child manage their anxiety. If you still find that your child struggles after a trial of these strategies, you might want to consider talking to a professional. A child psychologist, family doctor, or pediatrician are great places to start the conversation.

This post was authored by Lisa Curial, B.A., M.Ed., R. Psych. Lisa Curial is a Registered Psychologist living in Edmonton, Alberta. She has worked all over the province supporting school aged children. She is currently on maternity leave from her position with the Edmonton Public School Board where she works to support children in the school system.

Find her at [email protected] or @yegchildpsychologist 

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