How to Help Your Kids Cope With Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are a part of everyone's life—including your kids. Learn how to watch for signs of anxiety—and how to help your children cope with the stressors life throws their way.
From the day your baby cries when you leave for the first time to the night your teen comes home panicking about a bad grade, seeing your kids worry cuts like a knife. We want to protect them from suffering, but worrying is a normal part of childhood, adolescence, and, well, life itself.
Teaching our children healthy ways to cope with the things that stress them can bolster their emotional well-being for life and can prevent their worries from spiraling into something more serious, like an anxiety disorder. Here’s how to prepare the children in your life for some of the most common worries they may face and how to manage if their fears come true.
Related: The 14 Best Strategies for Coping With Anxiety
Bad things happen in life—whether it's a parent's illness or a national tragedy like the coronavirus pandemic. Learn how to help your kids with anxiety by giving them the tools they need to manage stress.
For instance, if your child finds himself in a stressful situation that triggers his anxiety, have him take a series of slow breaths to calm down, suggests Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. “I tell my kids ‘smell the flower, blow out the candle.’ That is, inhale slowly through the nose, and exhale slowly through the mouth.” Focusing on his breath (instead of on the stress) will allow your child to quell the anxiety and get his bearings.
News Events or Disasters
The coronavirus pandemic has definitely ratcheted up stress levels for adults and children, but news-related anxiety can hit whenever something distressing happens in your life or the world at large, from natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires to school shootings.
“Parents can keep these worries at bay by being mindful about how their children are exposed to the news and to information shared online,” says Nina Kaiser, PhD, a child psychologist in San Francisco. Parents also often have (legitimate) worries about events in the news, so lean into your support system to talk about your fears, see a therapist, or find a parents’ group to join to talk about your own anxiety. “Parents’ emotional reactions inform kids’ thoughts, feelings, and behavior. If parents are anxious, kids worry more too,” says Kaiser.
Some of the same coping strategies that work for anxious adults work for anxious kids, too—have your child try deep breathing, focus on a distracting (and positive) activity, go out and exercise, or ask kids to write down or draw pictures of the things they're thankful for to help them accentuate the positive.
Remember that the toughest time for kids is the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. Showcasing facts that may help them feel safe can reduce the stress. “Facts are your friends,” says Sheryl Ziegler, PsyD, a child psychologist in Denver and the author of Mommy Burnout. “Offer grounding statements like ‘Tragedies do happen, but it’s unlikely there’ll be one at your school,’” recommends Ziegler. For the coronavirus, you can point out all the people helping each other and all the ways you are keeping your family safe. Pointing to preparations that have been made to protect them may help reduce anxiety levels.
Around age 7 or earlier, many children ask their parents, “What happens after we die?” “When kids ask this question, it’s important to welcome their curiosity and answer honestly,” says Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief therapist and the author of Anxiety: the Missing Stage of Grief. Smith recommends asking, “What do you think happens?” If your child asks whether people or animals go to heaven, answer honestly based on your family’s beliefs. If your family doesn’t believe in the afterlife, it’s OK to be up front. “Talking about life spans of other species can help,” says Smith, so the death of a pet isn’t completely unexpected. When death isn’t a taboo topic, it can seem less scary.
“Kids’ worries about death may grow once they realize that their parents can’t protect them from everything,” says Abigail Marks, PhD, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in grief.
Concerns and anxiety about dying can also become magnified after losing a beloved pet or a family member. Talk openly about their fears. “See if you can find out more about their specific concerns and show that you take their feelings seriously,” advises Marks. No one has the answers to all of life’s existential questions, but Marks says that when kids feel reassured and understood, anxiety can begin to shrink.
Losing at Sports Games
You've probably seen enough bad behavior among the sports parents in the bleachers to understand why your child might take it hard if their team fails to perform.
The key to reducing anxiety is to focus on the performance (complimenting your child on a great play, for example), not the outcome. “Be sympathetic, let your child express his disappointment, then remind him that sports are about socializing and having fun, not just winning,” says Brooke De Lench, the founder of MomsTeam.com, an online resource for youth-sports parents, and the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports.
But let’s be honest―who wants to be a loser? “I’m not one to sit there and say, ‘It’s totally fine to get beat all the time,’ ” says Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, who admits to some postgame tears in his youth-sports days. “I think it’s good for kids to get upset when they lose.” But once they’ve cooled off, they should learn from it, too. “Pull them aside and say, ‘Do you know what you would do differently in the future?’ Ask them to say it rather than telling them,” says Brees.
A bad grade can feel like the end of the world to a child—especially in their teen years when the pressure of college admissions is on the horizon. It helps to keep it in perspective for your child. “One bad grade is one bad grade,” says Dawn Huebner, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Exeter, New Hampshire, and the author of the children’s book What to Do When You Worry Too Much. “It doesn’t mean your child is going to fail the class, so encourage her to let it go.”
“Kids will be more open to talking about the grade if you sympathize first with their embarrassment or anger,” says Huebner. Give your child time to react on her own, then ask questions to help her figure out what happened. Did she not understand the work? Did she make careless mistakes? “Stay as nonjudgmental as possible, even if you know the F is her fault,” says Huebner. Then talk about how to correct the problem in the future. Sharing one of your own failures (a bad grade, a bad performance review) and how you coped can help her move on.
Change is hard for everyone, but some kids have a harder time than others in dealing with transitions. One of the main factors that fuels a child’s anxiety is a fear of the unknown, which can seem like a scary monster looming in the distance.
To quell nerves, make sure your child's prepared for what's coming. “Sit down with your child before any event and discuss what will happen,” Hendrikson says. “Be specific and give details.” Say something like “At kindergarten, we will walk in and say hello to the teacher. What do you think the room will look like? What kinds of toys do you think are there?” This way, the unknown isn’t quite so mysterious and scary.
“Separation anxiety typically begins around 10 months old and can last to about age 3 and sometimes even longer,” Kaiser says. One way to help prepare little ones for goodbyes is to read a story like Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Misses Mama together. “Reading books about transitions like the first day of school normalizes the experience and reassures kids that everything will turn out OK,” says Kaiser. It’s also smart to visit the childcare facility or school with your infants or toddlers before the first day, she says. Showing them what to expect can help them feel safer when the big day comes.
Children who handle separation anxiety best learn what to expect over time. Saying things like “Grown-ups always come back” when you leave and telling your child what time you’ll return help establish a predictable routine. Setting up a goodbye ritual by singing a song and taking your child’s favorite stuffed animal to daycare can also help soothe sadness, says Kaiser.
Most importantly, to help your child cope with anxiety, keep your own worries under wraps. “Parents’ behavior shows kids whether there’s something to worry about,” says Kaiser. Drawing out the goodbye or becoming upset can make children’s worries grow, but talking to them calmly conveys that everything is going to be fine.
If you can remember your nervousness and awkwardness about your first crush, you probably get a sense of why your child's freaking out over every conversation with his object of affection.
Talk about it. “The first crush is a good opportunity to start discussing what your child likes about different people, what qualities attract her to one person over another,” says D’Arcy Lyness, Ph.D., a child psychologist for KidsHealth.org. Of course, she will probably be on to Chris or Will by week’s end, but if she’s having a tough time getting over Timmy, share your own first-crush experience. “Tell her it’s something we all go through,” says Lyness.
And for heaven’s sake, do not make a joke of it. No matter how cute/ridiculous/silly you think your child’s swooning is, don’t let it show. “Try to tread that nice middle ground between not taking things too seriously and dwelling on it too much,” says Lyness.
“Teaching kids how to take responsibility for their schoolwork can help them prepare for the stress of college preparation,” says Jean McPhee, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Northern California who specializes in treating learning problems and stress in students. And parents don’t need to wait until their teens are in high school to instill these helpful habits. “Instead of focusing on what kids aren’t doing, parents can get a step ahead of the commotion by praising them for positive behavior, like completing homework on time,” says McPhee. Saying things like “I notice you got your report written—great job” reinforces the development of good time-management skills and sturdy study habits, she says.
Working with your teens to establish a self-care routine can buffer them from college prep stress: Stress-management techniques like exercise and healthy eating can go a long way. And, as ever, keep your own stress about their college plans in check too. “Worried parents may react by saying something like ‘You’re never going to get your essays completed,’ which can feed a kid’s doomsday thinking,” McPhee says.
We all deal with stress and anxiety on a daily basis—even kids. But the biggest mistake you can make is to trivialize her concerns. Your instinct may be to try to soothe her with an upbeat platitude: “Don’t worry. It will be fine!” But that actually minimizes her feelings without giving her tools for handling her worries, says Hendrikson. Instead, ask questions so you can create a coping plan together. “What if you have a nightmare? Well, let's think about that. What would be a good thing to do? How can we make it less scary?”
“Toddlers as young as 18 months old can have nightmares,” says Angelique Millette, PhD, a pediatric sleep consultant with offices in Austin, Texas, and San Francisco. Nightmares can make it feel scary to go to bed the next night and even lead to fear of the dark. Though occasional bad dreams may be inevitable, Millette says that poor sleep quality can make nightmares worse. To get ahead of these overnight woes, she recommends creating a healthy sleep routine for your child. “Sticking to the same bedtime each night, using a low-watt night-light, and reading a calming story before bedtime can help kids feel safe and secure, which helps them sleep better at night,” says Millette. If they’re sleeping badly, make sure it isn’t because they’re overtired: Toddlers need about 10 to 12 hours each night and a 1½- to 2-hour nap.
Despite your best efforts, nightmares may still happen. And “some children become so worried about nightmares that they protest going to sleep,” says Millette. With younger toddlers, she recommends leaving a light on in the hallway and sitting with them when they’re distressed. Comforting statements like “You had a scary dream, but you’re safe” and “Your body is good at sleeping” can also be calming. Toddlers may have difficulty naming their fears, but having them draw a picture or helping them write a story about the experience can assist them in expressing their emotions, which feels empowering.
Staying With a Babysitter
While traditional separation anxiety may wane in the preschool years, your child may still be apprehensive about staying home with someone other than you.
You know how excited you are to be going out for a change? Make your child that pumped up to be staying in. Introduce the babysitter before the big night, then plan something fun for your child that evening. For example, fix his favorite dinner, buy cool snacks, or rent a movie that he’s dying to see (or the one he’s watched 25 times that he’s still dying to see).
It’s also good to tell him where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Then check in periodically to remind your child that you’ve still got your eye on him and that you’re OK. “Some kids worry about their parents when they’re not home, so when they hear from you and know that you’re having a good time, that reassures them,” says Lyness.
Friendship and Social Media
“Drama almost always comes with the territory in the social lives of teens,” says Lisa Damour, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. Letting adolescents know that friendships don’t exist without tension can reassure them that these social challenges are normal and lessen their fears of peer rejection. Teens may bristle when parents give advice, whereas sharing that you’ve faced similar conflicts with friends can validate their emotions.
Situations like not getting invited to a party and later learning about it on Instagram can be crushing for many adolescents. “If your teen is worried about being left out in real life or on social media, empathize with their feelings. Let them know that it’s hard to have that much information about what they’re missing,” says Damour. Noting some reasons why people may limit their guest lists can help: Maybe the party space was small, or their parents made them invite family friends. And remind your teen that hanging out with a mix of people is a normal part of social life. She can and should, too.