We all want our kids to feel happy and carefree. But struggles with anxiety are a reality during childhood and more common than you may expect. One in eight children develop an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Building character strengths to combat these anxieties—such as resilience and bravery—provide an opportunity to grow stronger by overcoming challenges, which is an important and rewarding aspect of your child’s life. Karen Reivich, Ph.D., director of training programs for the Penn Positive Psychology Center and co-author of The Resilience Factor, believes there is room for a wide range of emotions, both positive and negative.
“Well-being, in my mind, is having the tools to live a life where you have a healthy diet of positive emotion, like happiness, but also other emotions, like curiosity or gratitude or contentment....I don’t think a life well-lived is solely focused on happiness.”
If it’s getting harder to reassure your child, or if anxiety is starting to affect family life or school performance, the anxiety may be pushing past healthy boundaries. Knowing how to spot the warning signs will help your child find his or her bravest self.
When Not to Worry About Worry
It’s not fun to watch kids wrestle with fears, but a little anxiety from time to time is part of life. It can even be a good thing.
“There’s often a myth or misconception that anxiety is a negative or unhelpful emotion,” says Lindsay Scharfstein, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change who specializes in working with children and families. “Anxiety helps us in so many ways. It helps us keep things that are important on our minds, like an exam coming up, or finding friendships.”
We want young kids to feel anxious about crossing the street, for example, and separation anxiety in babies is a sign of healthy bonding with parents. Older kids may feel stage fright before a big performance they’ve been looking forward to for months.
“Viewing anxiety in a positive light helps us change the experience. Maybe that’s excitement about trying something new,” Lindsay says.
Looking for the positive side can help parents, too. Interpret test-day jitters as a sign of your child’s motivation, and you’ll feel less stressed and be able to help your child calm down. Lindsay says anxiety affects the whole family, not just the child, so take time to care for your own mental well-being. An article in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review found that fear cues in parents’ language may be associated with children’s anxiety. When you’re positive and confident, you’re modeling a healthy outlook for your child.
Positive Childhood Anxiety Busters
Parents can practice easy techniques at home to chase anxious thoughts away. Fans of the Harry Potter series will remember that the Boggart, a magical monster, is defeated by laughter. It turns out this works in real life, too.
“Humor takes the power out of [anxiety],” says Kathleen Trainor, Psy.D., founder of the TRAINOR Center and author of Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do. “A lot of these kids are very serious, they can be very smart, they’re overthinking everything. The introduction of humor puts everything in perspective.” Timing is important. Gently joking about a fear is helpful when the kid is calm and thinking clearly. But when your child’s feeling panicky, humor’s more likely to make her angry.
Allison Edwards, play therapist and author of Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help, also recommends finding a positive spin for common fears. Movies like Monsters, Inc. can inspire kids to reimagine their own bedtime monsters as friends and protectors.
Allison teaches kids to recognize anxiety in their minds and bodies. When it’s time to calm down (such as at bedtime or before a big game), breathing exercises can help. Her “Square Breathing” tool involves inhaling, holding, exhaling and resting, each on a count of four.
Sometimes, parents may decide they need professional support to help their children control anxiety.
“There are three areas of a child’s life: school, home and friends. If your child is struggling in two out of three of those areas, I would go to a counselor for additional support,” Allison says.
Facing Their Fears
Your child’s age and personality can guide your approach to easing his fears. Often, parental instincts fit beautifully with expert recommendations.
When Mikaela Devine’s toddler developed a fear of the vacuum, Mikaela, a wedding planner in Bowie, Maryland, had family members and friends take turns hugging the machine. After a while, her daughter wanted a turn, too. Reframing a frightening object as something safe, and even cuddly, can help little ones relax.
“What excites me about this work is...it’s science catching up with Grandma,” Karen says. “Traditional wisdom about building a happy life, like counting your blessings, looking on the bright side or sharing something you’re grateful for over family dinner, teaches healthy mental habits.”
Sarah Hash, a prenatal genetic counselor in Rockville, Maryland, noticed her kindergarten-aged kids were excited to sign up for T-ball or gymnastics classes, but got clingy and anxious at drop-off time.
“What we started doing is meeting the teacher or coach beforehand if possible,” she explained. “We ask them to give our child a job, such as collect all the balls in this bag, line up all the teddy bears, sort mats, organize shoes—something. That gave the child a focus because they knew what to expect and it led to a better first or second day of this new activity.”
Happier Kids, Happier Families
One unexpected benefit of childhood anxiety is that kids have the chance to develop new strengths.
“It’s a very positive and self-esteem building and affirming process to work through anxiety. They [children] can feel proud of themselves for what they’ve mastered,” Kathleen says. Skills like enhanced self-awareness, confidence and self-control help kids keep fears at bay and serve them for the rest of their lives. They may even develop greater empathy. “I do believe they develop compassion for other kids, who face other challenges.”
Allison also sees anxiety itself as a potentially positive force. The key is to harness its power for good. “If you channel anxiety in the right way, you can actually become very successful. Most of the kids I work with are very high-performing kids, and if they didn’t have anxiety, they wouldn’t be that way. Most high-functioning people have traces of [anxiety] because they’re afraid not to try, [and] not to do well.”
Confronting anxiety head-on can lead to positive changes for the whole family. When parents learn to work together to handle a child’s fears, it can ease any tensions anxious behavior is causing in the marriage. Therapists can give siblings their own projects to master, reducing jealousy over the extra attention an anxious child receives. Working together to get anxiety under control doesn’t only lead to happier, braver kids, but happier families as well.