How to Help a Child With Anxiety

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Most kids feel some anxiety from time to time. According to researchers published in JAMA Pediatrics, anxiety in kids appears to be on the rise. By 2020, 9.2% of American children had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

When kids feel anxious, it's normal for parents and other adults to want to help. The best way to help a child with anxiety is to talk openly and honestly about their feelings, provide reassurance that they're safe and loved, and help them develop skills to cope with their stress.

Learn to Recognize When Your Child Is Anxious

Kids don't always understand their feelings or have the words to describe their fears. Talking about what they are experiencing can help parents gain more insight into what might be causing a child to feel anxious.

Because of this, it can be helpful for parents to watch for signs of anxiety which can include:

  • Physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, feeling sick, sweating, or panic attacks
  • Cognitive symptoms such as being nervous, acting overwhelmed, constantly worrying, or being in a constant state of alert
  • Behavioral symptoms such as withdrawing from friends, changing eating habits, or repeating behaviors to deal with anxiety

Consider the Source of Your Child's Anxiety

It's essential to start by understanding the source of your child's anxiety. Anxiety can be caused by anything from day-to-day worries. By understanding what might be creating distress, you can take steps to help your child deal with anxiety. Sources of anxiety in children can include:

  • Stressful daily routines or events
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Learning disabilities that affect performance in school
  • Social pressure from peers
  • Bullying or teasing from other children
  • General worries about events in their life
  • Fear of illness
  • Academic fears
  • Social anxiety
  • Traumatic experiences such as a death in the family, divorce, or natural disasters

Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety that is relatively common in children between the ages of three and five. Many kids experience this type of anxiety to some degree, and it often resolves on its own with care and support from caregivers. 

Research suggests that the typical age of onset for childhood anxiety disorders is age 11. Girls typically experience anxiety at higher rates than boys, a trend that continues into adulthood.

Spotting anxiety early, using strategies to help kids with anxiety, and seeking professional treatment can help kids learn to manage anxiety before the condition worsens or interferes with their ability to function normally in daily life.

Offer Reassurance and Support

Kids need to know they are loved and supported no matter what they may be feeling or going through. When kids feel anxious, they need to hear reassuring words from a trusted adult. Offer your support and let them know that you are there for them.

It is natural to want to protect your child from feeling anxious, but it can be helpful to remember that this is a normal part of growing up. Let your child know that their feelings are normal and that they will get through it. Remind them of the times when they have previously managed anxiety successfully.

Provide Healthy Coping Strategies

Help your child develop coping strategies to manage anxiety. Coping strategies that can help kids calm down when they are feeling anxious include the following:

  • Deep breathing: Encourage your child to take deep breaths when feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
  • Visualization: Help your child to imagine a peaceful place or a positive outcome that can help them feel calmer.
  • Positive self-talk: Teach your child positive affirmations and self-talk.
  • Using fidget toys: Fidget toys, such as stress balls or putty, can help kids focus and stay present.
  • Getting enough sleep: Sleep is essential for emotional well-being. Ensure that your child is getting enough rest.
  • Eating healthy: Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help promote emotional well-being.
  • Setting realistic goals: Setting achievable goals can help your child build their confidence and self-esteem.
  • Grounding techniques: Grounding techniques, such as mindfulness or tactile activities, can help kids focus on the present and take their minds off of anxious thoughts.
  • Relaxation techniques: Help your child engage in calming activities such as yoga or meditation.
  • Exercise: Participating in regular physical activity may help your child reduce their anxiety levels and cope with their fears more effectively. Taking a walk or participating in outdoor activities can be calming and beneficial for reducing anxiety.

Recap

Deep breathing, going for a walk, or playing with a pet are all calming activities that can help kids cope with stress. Some children benefit from mindfulness exercises and relaxation techniques that help them focus on the present moment and let go of worries or anxious thoughts. You can also provide your child with books or worksheets to help them work through their anxiety.

Empathize With Your Child


Let your child know that you understand how they're feeling. It can be very helpful just to listen, without trying to fix the problem or give advice. Asking questions like 'What do you think might help?" can open up a conversation and allow your child to express their thoughts and feelings in their own words.

It is important to remember that empathizing with your child does not mean that you agree that their fear is correct. For example, you might say, "I understand that you feel scared," instead of, "You should not be scared." This helps validate their feelings without reinforcing that fear.

What NOT to Say to a Child With Anxiety

Avoid saying things that dismiss your child's fear or add to it. Comments to avoid include:

  • "Don't worry!"
  • "It's not a big deal!"
  • "Just hurry up and do it!"
  • "There's nothing to be afraid of!"
  • "Just stop thinking about it!"
  • "Just let me do it!"

Encourage Positive Self-Talk

Help your child recognize negative or anxious thoughts, and encourage them to replace those thoughts with positive self-talk. Talk about how our words can affect our emotions, such as saying "I am strong and capable" instead of "I can't do anything right."

It is also important to model positive self-talk yourself, as this will help your child learn how to cope with anxiety in their own way.

Don't Avoid Things That Cause Anxiety


While it might be tempting to simply try to avoid the things that your child's fears, one of the best things you can do to help a child with anxiety is to help them face their fears. Avoiding sources of anxiety can actually make anxiety worse.

Starting small and gradually working up to confronting the source of anxiety can help kids overcome their fears in a safe, age-appropriate way. 

For example, if your child is anxious about going to school next year, you could start by having them spend time in a classroom for a few minutes each day. Gradually increase the time spent in the school until the child feels more comfortable and less afraid.

Watch Your Own Behavior

Be aware of your own behavior and ensure you are not modeling anxious behaviors for your child. Kids take cues from their parents, so being mindful of your own behavior can help set a positive example for your child.

If you are feeling anxious, it is okay to tell your child that you understand how they feel or to share some strategies that help you when you're feeling anxious. It's important to recognize that anxiety is a normal part of life, and it's okay not to have all the answers.

As part of watching your own behavior, be on the lookout for subtle cues that might reinforce your child's fear. Tone of voice, body language, and other nonverbal cues might cause your child to think there might be a reason to worry, even if your words say otherwise.

Minimize Anticipatory Anxiety

Anticipatory anxiety happens when people are worrying about something that they expect to happen. For many kids, worrying about future events is more stressful than the event itself.

You can minimize this fear by reducing their "worry window." Instead of discussing an event that will happen next week, save the discussion until shortly before the event occurs.

Know When to Get Help

Suppose your child's anxiety seems to be worsening or affecting their daily life. In that case, it is important to seek professional help from a doctor or mental health professional who can provide additional support and resources. Working together as a family to manage anxiety can help your child.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can effectively treat children coping with anxiety. This approach helps kids better understand the types of distorted thoughts that contribute to anxiety and fear. It also helps kids change these thoughts and develop more effective coping skills

A type of CBT known as exposure therapy can also be helpful. It involves gradually exposing children to the source of their fear. Over time, their fear gradually subsides.

A Word From Verywell

Seeking professional help for your child's anxiety can be beneficial. Talk to a mental health provider if your child needs additional support. You don't have to go through this alone! There are many resources available for both you and your child. With the right help and support, your child can learn to manage their anxiety and live a full life.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. McLean CP, Asnaani A, Litz BT, Hofmann SG. Gender differences in anxiety disorders: prevalence, course of illness, comorbidity and burden of illness. J Psychiatr Res. 2011;45(8):1027-1035. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.03.006

  5. Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, et al. How breath-control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathingFront Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:353. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.