Splitting Open the Problem of Anxiety in Our Children

Guest Author: Clinton Nunnally, LCP

Foundations Family Counseling Associates LLC

Anxiety is a normal emotional and physiological experience for all humans, children and adults alike. We forget that this is the case. We think of anxiety as essentially problematic, as though we shouldn’t experience it. And we try to should it away. But it doesn’t work. Or we get so scared of our anxiety that we feel we must collapse underneath it and let it gobble us up completely, which isn’t true and also doesn’t work. Anxiety is the typical response we have to things that are unknown or unknowable: e.g., new situations, the future, unexpected experiences, hurts, the dark, and death. Of course, it’s true that anxiety can feel incredibly overwhelming and terribly uncomfortable, especially if we don’t know what we are dealing with or if we fight it tooth and nail. So, what we want to be able to do is recognize it and do something with it. And how we deal with anxiety in ourselves is also how we tend to deal with it when we see it in our children… if we see it in our children. So, how can we deal with our children’s anxiety more effectively?

Learning to Recognize and Deal With Anxiety in Ourselves

First things first. We have to learn how to handle our own anxiety before we can help our kids. Adults, for the most part, don’t struggle to recognize anxiety in themselves. We know it by our racing minds, ruminating thoughts, rapid breathing and heart rates, the pit in our stomachs, and our general sense of worry and dread. And what do we do? We avoid, soothe ourselves with various forms of consumption, hate on ourselves, fight it, or collapse. But we can do better than this. We can breathe… really breathe. We can become mindful. We can meditate. We can soothe ourselves with deep truths, tell ourselves that we are going to be okay, and accept our anxiety and know that it is telling us something and really listen to it so that we can respond in helpful ways. And we can do the same thing for our children by teaching them to recognize their own anxiety and cope with it in helpful ways.

Recognizing Anxiety in Our Children

In our children or the children we work with, it is more difficult to recognize their anxiety than our own because we can’t see all the inner workings and experiences of their minds and bodies. This is compounded by the the fact that children have a hard time recognizing anxiety in themselves because of their limited life experience and the unfolding developmental process whereby children learn to give names to their experiences. This takes time and the mirroring of significant others. So, we mostly see children’s behaviors. And behaviors are always a form of communication and an abundance of information.

When children are anxious they may act shy. They might ask questions that stem from worry. Like adults, they will attempt to avoid the cause of their anxiety, which can look like hesitancy, opposition, excuse making, non-compliance, tantrums, or tears. Like adults, they might soothe themselves with consumption by overeating or staying in their rooms with the safety of screens. Like adults, they might say hateful things about themselves, but they will often say it out loud. And like adults, they will try to fight anxiety on the inside but are more likely to leak their experience with behaviors and conditions such as nail biting, upset stomachs, and facial expressions. And once you become more aware of your child’s anxiety levels from witnessing his or her behaviors, you can mobilize for loving and supportive action!