Understanding a Child’s Anxiety

By Alexa Ashworth, MFTC

Understanding a child’s anxiety will help them to cope with emotional ups and downs.

I am eight.  My parents are gathering for a birthday party to celebrate my father’s co-worker.  It is at a park and I was told there will be other kids there.  I wonder if my parents know “other kids being there” is not selling me on wanting to go.  As we enter the party, I feel myself shrinking lower and lower to the ground.  I am secretly hoping the grass will grow taller to disguise me or the ground will suck me in and I disappear awhile.  Either way, I am worried I will not have anyone to play with.  I tell my parent’s, “my stomach hurts”, as we are even closer to the other parents and their kids.  My mom says, “You just need to eat something, you are okay.”  My dad follows this by, “Yeah buddy. Once you eat and start meeting the other kids, you’ll feel much better.”  I think to myself, “I am not hungry.”  I start looking around the park to find a place I can go play by myself and find a sandy spot under one of the slides at the playground.  “This feels safe.”

Kids are always telling us their feelings and giving us signs as to what they are experiencing.  It is our job as parents, caregivers, or teachers to pause and listen to what our child is saying.  Understanding a child’s anxiety allows us to tune in and understand what the real problem is.  Like the eight-year-old in this story saying, “my stomach hurts”, as a way to tell his parents, “I am worried about making friends.”

In this example, the parents could have paused, knelt down by their child and asked, “You haven’t voiced your stomach hurt all day, is there a reason for why it does now?”  The child may say at this point, “I don’t know.” 

This is when we can acknowledge what emotion we see our child showing us and validate going to a new place, where there will be new people can be intimidating.  This may sound like, “It looks like you are nervous about going to this party.  It is okay to feel this way.  I still get anxious meeting new people sometimes, so understand how you feel.”  It is important to name for our child what they may be feeling, so they are heard and seen. 

Lastly, send a message of courage that your child is capable of trying something new, despite being worried about meeting other kids.  Say something like, “It is scary to meet new people, but I am confident you will make one new friend today.”       

Something I have noticed over time, is more and more adults have higher expectations of their kids at younger and younger ages.  We may think it is easy to be able to say what we want or need, however, even as adults, this is very difficult to do. 

It is important to reflect back to our younger years as children, find examples of situations that were challenging for us, and be able to tie those experiences to our child’s present experience.  Kids really do like to hear that they are not alone and they are even more empowered when they know a parent has shared in similar feelings. 

I highly encourage all adults whether they are your own children or you work with kids as a profession, to start reflecting on past experiences and how you overcame them.  That way when it comes time to be on your child’s level, it will be even easier to talk them through their personal anxieties.  With patience and persistence, children will develop new strengths and skills that will help them overcome anxious moments, outweighing their fears.“Typically, what happens is a child encounters a new situation and they need some time to learn about it, to work with it and get used to it.” – Tamar Chansky, PhD, psychologist

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