Be Well: How Anxiety Can Present in Tots and Teens
The younger the child, the bigger the feels, says a Twin Cities pediatric expert. Kids are feeling more on edge than usual—learn how to help them navigate the big feelings through diet changes, calming rituals, supplements, and more.
From what feels like a never-ending stream of bad news on TV and online to the ups and downs of the pandemic, it’s no wonder anxiety is on the rise in both adults and children. A recent study shows that depression and anxiety have doubled in children since the beginning of the pandemic, and other studies have shown that high schoolers felt more hopeless and depressed than usual.
If you’ve noticed your child seems more on edge (or even quieter) than what’s considered their “normal,” these tips and coping mechanisms may help them better articulate and navigate their feelings so you can work through their worries together.
“The Younger the Child, the Bigger the Feels”
Older kids aren’t the only ones dealing with worries; anxiety can start as early as age two or three. For pre-verbal children who can’t tell you what they’re feeling, signs of anxiety and stress may present as general irritability, weepiness, and clinginess, as well as temper tantrums. Anxiety in toddlers and younger children can be a reaction to a certain need not being met, so you may need to watch your child closely to figure out what they actually need from you. “We always say, ‘The younger the child, the bigger the feels,’” says Anne Spicer, DC, DACCP, professor and clinician at Northwestern Health Services University. “The more our needs are met when we’re younger, and the more we trust that those needs will be met, then the more in control our feelings become.”
Anxiety may also present itself at night via sleep difficulties, bed-wetting, and nightmares or with tummy aches, appetite changes, and/or frequent urination. In older children, watch out for reluctance to hang out with friends or try new activities.
How to Help Them Deal
Breathe it out.
Deep breathing exercises are one of the simplest and most effective methods to get back in tune with yourself and calm down. “Deep breathing stimulates parasympathetics, the relaxation for the body,” explains Spicer. “It’s an exercise people do with anxiety … it brings the heart rate down and increases feel-good hormones in the brain.” Teaching your child how to breathe deeply when they’re navigating big feelings is a skill that can stick with them for a lifetime.
If your child is in the middle of a tantrum, don’t try talking it out with them immediately. Instead, take some deep breaths together—you probably need them, too! “[Young children in tantrum mode are] functioning from a reactive brain and not from a thinking brain,” says Spicer. “It’s hard to reach them when they’re in that tantrum phase.” Instead, let them ride it out or approach them in a gentle and calming manner and help them regulate their breathing; try taking some deep breaths together. “Once they can calm themselves down, you can reach them with anything you need to say. If they’re in their tantrum, you’re probably not going to reach them.”
Talk through what’s on their mind.
Your child’s anxiety may be a result of very real fears as they navigate the world around them, and it’s best for you to respond in an empathetic, understanding manner. Let your child know that it’s OK to worry about things; we all get nervous and have moments of fear and anxiety, but approaching them in a positive and productive way helps make them feel less imposing and more manageable. “They can make a choice as to how they respond to a certain situation,” Spicer explains. ”This gives them power over their anxiety.”
Give them time and space to settle down, then discuss the root of their anxieties and how you’ll tackle it together. “Once they’re calm, think of creative solutions,” says Spicer. For example, if your child is experiencing big feelings when you leave the house and is worried you won’t come back, consider FaceTiming them from your destination to let them know you’re OK and will be home soon.
Children pick up on our feelings, so try to model the behaviors you want them to mimic when dealing with stressful situations or mounting worries. “Worry is a very natural thing, and anxiety is worry on steroids. You can’t turn it off, you can’t stop it,” says Spicer. “We all worry—you can’t help but worry about some of the things happening in our world today.”
When you’re facing a stressor of your own that your child will understand, share your feelings with them. “We can show them and explain to them … ‘I can do wonders with something new! It will be an adventure,’” shares Spicer. “When we talk about illness or COVID, we can talk about that in a way … that frames it in a manageable package [with things like washing hands and wearing masks.]”
For older children, Spicer recommends trying the “Triple C” method to talk through worries. First, encourage them to “catch” their thoughts and list what they’re worried about. Next, have them “consider” whether or not these worries are realistic. The final stage is to “challenge” the accuracy of those worries. Spicer notes that worry is more common in overachieving children and perfectionists, and could be an overreaction to a challenge they’re dealing with at school or in social situations.
Try “worry time” or other creative solutions.
If your child is consistently anxious about school or friendships, consider developing a daily “worry time” of 10 to 15 minutes where they can sit with you and list everything on their mind without judgment. Once that time is up, the worries have to wait until tomorrow. A worry box or worry bear they can talk to may also help them let go of their anxieties. A weighted blanket, vest, or stuffed animal can help provide comfort and relief.
Other Resources to Consider
Diet changes and supplements can also help your child feel better equipped to handle big emotions. Spicer recommends reducing the amount of sugar your child consumes; if they have a sweet tooth, offer fruit, not candy. Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are rich in B-vitamins, which can help promote feelings of calm. Epsom salt baths are another calming ritual to implement in your child’s routine.
If you’re open to supplements, Spicer recommends Mary Ruth’s B-Complex Drops, Nature’s Way Cool Calm & Collected Gummies, and Natural Vitality Calm Kids. (Speak to your child’s pediatrician first.)
Books about dealing with worries are helpful for both little ones and their parents. For younger kids, Spicer recommends How Big Are Your Worries, Little Bear? by Jayneen Sanders and Hey Warrior by Karen Young. For older kids and teens, try When My Worries Get Too Big by Kari Dunn Buron, The Self-Regulation Workbook for Kids by Jenna Berman, and/or The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens by Jennifer Shannon.