Signs your child might be struggling with anxiety—and what to do about it
Don't let them suffer without support.
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All kids have worries and fears. In typical times, a scary movie may inspire a week of a child running to your bedroom to sleep, a big neighborhood dog may alter your walking route for months, and a new school year may result in weeks of worry. Oftentimes, anxiety triggers will come and go in children, but the disruption of children's lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other events is causing heightened and prolonged anxiety in children.
"Everybody's baseline is changing right now and kids are feeling that. They are looking for grounding. They are looking to connect," says John Piacentini, Ph.D., ABPP and the director of both the Center for Child Anxiety, Resilience, Education and Support (CARES) and the Child OCD, Anxiety and Tic Disorders Program at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Since so many routines of daily life are on hold and children's means of emotional outlets, like playgrounds, playdates, and after-school programs, are off-limits, you may have started to see the telltale signs of anxious behavior in your child. If your younger child is more clingy, is regressing in sleep, or if bathroom accidents and baby-talk have suddenly reemerged after both seemed long behind you, you aren't alone.
"Children are seeking predictability and control and we see anxious, aggressive, and regressive behaviors when they feel out of control or overwhelmed," says Lynn Lyons, LICSW and the author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children.
Know the signs
Stress and anxiety can show up in all kinds of ways in children of all ages. You may see tantrums, irritability, aggression, anger, and—commonly—regressive behaviors. "Regression is not unusual in normal times, and these are not normal times. Development isn’t a straight line, but we do see these behaviors when a child is stressed or there is a lot of change going on,” says Lyons.
Sleep regression and bathroom training regressions are common in smaller children, but according to the experts we spoke to, all children can experience some form of regression in times of high stress. For older kids, you may see them lose confidence in tasks they've mastered, their sleep may be disrupted, or they may ask for more help than usual with their homework. When you see clinginess at any age it could be a sign of a child feeling anxious or distressed.
Piacentini also says to look for physical symptoms, like nausea and headaches, and he points out that avoidance behaviors are also a sign of stress. An older child may resist filling out applications or finishing their homework, and a younger one may resist washing their hands, picking up toys, or leaving the house. Look for kids avoiding tasks that may have been second nature a few months ago.
Anxiety is normal
According to Piacentini, anxiety is completely normal. It’s expected in new challenges or situations. "Anxiety is a part of our existence. It serves to keep us safe," he says. You may now see kids lashing out and showing belligerent or angry behaviors, and this is their way of dealing with something that they can't fully comprehend.
He says that now is not the time to focus on what they may say or do, but why they may be doing it. "This is really a time for empathy and connection. It's OK for you to acknowledge their feelings and let them know that Mommy and Daddy feel that way, too. If a child is anxious and a parent reacts with their own anxiety or anger it can lead to worsening a kid's anxiety. Now is the time to be predictable and as even-keeled as possible with our kids."
Reflect on your own behavior
Both Lyons and Piacentini advise parents to take a look at themselves and what sort of anxiety they might be having that they are passing on to their children. "I put a big emphasis on parental behaviors," says Lyons. "Little kids don’t really know what’s going on right now. They aren’t picking up the details of what's on the news. They are picking up on their parents' behaviors and older kids are using parents as means for knowing how much to worry," says Lyons.
She advises that parents pay attention to the emotional tone they set in the home. "You really want to pay attention to catastrophic language. What are they hearing on the news and what are they hearing when you're talking to your partner? Are you a worrier? If so, the first step is to manage that," she says. Lyons recommends that parents really pay attention to their own facial expressions, body language, and the tone of how they speak. "If you are emotionally reactive your children will absorb that and they'll give it back to you in their own way," she says.
During anxious times, children are looking to parents for grounding. It can be tempting for parents to throw structure out the window when a child is showing signs of stress, but all of the experts we spoke to say it's important to maintain structure when kids are feeling like their world is out of control.
"Kids are more dependent on parents than ever right now, and parents need to be predictable," says Piacentini. He says if a child is feeling sad or upset, it shouldn't mean that they can avoid what they are expected to do. "If we give in to their anxiety and let them get out of what they need to do, we are rewarding the anxiety." He recommends staying on routine, giving choices, and rewarding children for making a positive effort. "Kids need to stay active and they need to keep doing what we expect them to do."
He says you can build in choice to make them feel more in control, but only give them choices that you are comfortable with, such as you can eat the carrots or the tomatoes, or you can get dressed before you brush your teeth or after. If your child doesn't want to sleep in their own bed, or they are avoiding cleaning up after play time, it may seem like giving into those little habits aren't a big deal, but Piacentini says that the more the negative habits are reinforced the more insidious they become. "Maintain the rules, structures and routines that have always been in place. You can give a little leeway, you can give extra comfort and support, but don't fully collapse the structure," he says.
Address their fears
Lyons cautions that trying to eliminate worry is the furthest thing from productive. As soon as you try to eliminate worry and anxiety you exacerbate it. "When parents try to fix things and try to make worry go away they feed into it," says Lyons. "The more you try to get rid of worry the stronger it gets."
She says it's natural to want to jump in and prevent distress, but when we do so we turn anxiety and fear into a beast that needs to be avoided. She recommends talking with kids in simple terms and letting them know that there is uncertainty all around us and that it's scary but it's also OK to be uncertain. "It's OK not to have all the answers for your child. Let them work through their questions and let them know that you are OK without knowing the outcome. It's a fact of life that we aren't always going to be able to predict the future and it's a skill or kids to learn to be OK with that," says Lyons.
Redirect and connect
Schedules are awry and parents are overwhelmed but now is really the time to factor in any connection time you can. According to Jeanine Rousso, LMHC, LPC, RPT-S a play therapist in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, when you give time for cuddles, or stop to play, it helps to stop a child's nervous system from going into fight or flight mode.
"If everyone is stressed and high anxiety, then that's where the kids are going to be during this time. If you're able to stop, connect, play with them, and cuddle them, that's how you can protect them against feeling trauma during this time," says Rousso.
She recommends daily connection in the form of play and 30 minutes per week, per child, of what she calls "hardcore play." "It’s rare that a kid will talk through their anxiety. Play can be such a great way for kids to process things," she says. She recommends 100% child-lead play. "This is their time for them to feel in control. Don't ask questions, don't give suggestions. Just allow them to take the lead." If you’re looking for ideas, consider some of our favorite outdoor games that kids and adults enjoy.
Rousso also recommends play that can redirect a child's behavior. She likes play that focuses on breathing techniques. "I like to encourage kids to blow out a pretend cup of hot chocolate. Or get them blowing bubbles. Incorporate deep breaths into play to help them calm and redirect themselves."
Give extra support
If your child lashes out or if they struggle with simple tasks that they seemed to master in the past, it may be tempting to scold them or put pressure on them to complete tasks expected of them in the way they've always done. It's OK to cave in and help them when they are asking for your support.
When they are asking for help cleaning their room or washing their hands, or when they are having a hard time going to sleep or they are wetting their pants, they are exhibiting stress in those moments as a stand-in for the overall stress they are feeling, says Lyons. "It's OK to be with them and to reassure them," she says. "I like to say, 'It looks like you are having a rough time, what can we do about that?' and offer help. If they are showing anger, offer them support, have them sit on your lap and have a hug and then get up together to help them do what they need to do."
Help a child into bed and tell them you'll be back in five minutes to check on them. Hand them the toys to clean their room. Stand by them as they wash their hands and reassure them they are doing it just right. This isn't about rewarding bad behavior, it's about understanding your child's way of communicating stress when they aren't able to find the words themselves.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is, these behaviors aren't personal and they aren't about your child disrespecting you or the rules you have at home. "It may be hard to hear but they are most likely reflecting your stress back at you in the only way they know how," says Lyons.
If a parent is anxious or distressed, angry or disconnected, the likely of that child having anxiety is greater. "These things are contagious. Check your own distress and what you are demonstrating to your child. If you can remind yourself to remain calm when your child is exhibiting stressful behaviors, you are teaching your child how to respond more positively to stress."