Yes, I know what childhood should be… a carefree, joyful time of no worries and playful days. For the most part, that was my childhood and may have been for many of you, as well. So, it may be hard to consider the reality of a young child experiencing anxiety.
For sure, there have always been children living at risk, in marginal environments, or with domestic conflict or violence, or dealing with the repercussions of poverty. In the past, however, the stress or anxiety children suffered was the result of living and breathing it. Today, children who may have little actual risk in their family situation are getting it secondhand from the media and adult reaction to it.
Some children are more prone to anxiety than others. This happens for two reasons. First, due to genetics, they may react more strongly to stressful information or situations. And secondly, being young children, they don’t yet have the coping skills they need to roll back their strong feelings.
We can, however, help even very young children get a handle on how they react to and process what is making them anxious. Some suggestions are…
Anticipate situations that may be troubling. Turn off the TV if the news anchor announces what you know will be a disturbing news story is up next. Also, refrain from leaving the TV on if you aren’t going to be in the room to monitor content.
Keep tabs on how you react to stressful information. Toddlers and preschoolers rely heavily on social referencing in deciding and learning how they should react. Learn to keep calm and avoid verbal and emotional outbursts, which can become a child’s working response model and fuel for his anxiety.
Establish some predictable routines. Days that are fraught with schedule changes and unpredictability put young children on edge, just as they do for adults! You can always have room for flexibility, but some things, like bedtime and meals, should be dependable. Knowing what and when to expect basic daily events provides calm and security that can offer resilience to children, when faced with something disturbing.
Teach simple relaxation techniques. This can help them learn to self-soothe when they feel anxious and step it down to a more manageable level. Closing their eyes and taking some deep breaths or visualizing themselves in a happy, safe place can give them tools to use, even when they are by themselves.
Be observant for signs of anxiety. This will most likely be something subtle that perhaps only someone intimately familiar with the child will notice. It may be a change in appetite, clinginess, sleep problems, complaining about not feeling well, hyperactivity, or becoming quiet and withdrawn.
Recognize when some outside help is needed. Some children just won’t respond to our best efforts and will need some additional help. It is so important to suggest this if it is warranted. Unresolved anxiety can metamorphose into childhood or adolescent mental illness.
Every child is unique. We can never be sure what and how much anxiety will trigger a lifelong struggle. Being aware, proactive, and advocating for early intervention will enable more children to find calm and to fully participate in a happy childhood.