Anxiety in children – how to help when the worries take hold

Anxiety in children - Ever-changing Life of a MumWorry, stress, doubt, insecurity, fear. Feelings of anxiety can affect people of all ages, but when they start to take hold of your young children you can often feel helpless as a parent, although you would do anything to make them feel better.

Children can suffer from anxiety to the point where it can be debilitating for themselves and their surrounding family members. Sure, some level of stress and worry is normal for everyone, but when it starts to prevent your children from enjoying their day to day life then it’s time to seek further help.

I have experienced a time like this with one of my daughters. It began with a refusal to go to school or extracurricular activities, many teary episodes and complaints of a sore stomach. Then the vomiting started followed by the panic attacks.

The worries had taken over and were controlling her every thought and action. It was awful to see my usually confident, smiling daughter this way. It was also very frustrating as even my daughter didn’t even understand why she was having these feelings and there were no particular incidents pinpointing such strong emotional reactions.

In the end, we sought some professional help for our daughter and it made a massive difference. It taught her, and us as parents, some fantastic skills that I’m sure not only helped at the time but will see her through the school years and beyond.

Recently when some of these feelings began to flare up again, I quickly pulled out some of the past notes and workbooks to remind us of the techniques we had learned and used. Getting on top of it early certainly made a big difference this time round.

I decided to share this story and some of the techniques we used to help reach out to other parents with children who may be going through a similar situation. I want them to know that they are not the only ones. It can feel extremely isolating when it seems like every other child is happily walking into their classrooms while yours is a complete mess in the school yard or hallway, begging you to take them back home.

So here are some of the techniques we found most useful:*

Anxiety workbooks for children

There are some great workbooks out there aimed at helping children overcome their anxiety. One book I highly recommend is What To Do When you Worry Too Much – A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner Ph.D. It helps children explore concepts and feelings related to anxiety with plenty of activities to guide them along the way. Another to look out for online is Mighty Moe – An Anxiety Workbook for Children by Lacey Woloshyn.

Talk Time and setting up a Worry Box

Set aside some uninterrupted time , perhaps 15-30 minutes, each day with your child for Worry Time, or what we preferred to call as Talk Time because it sounds a little more positive. It provides an opportunity to sit down and talk about anything on your child’s mind and gives parents time to work through those feelings and remind them of any techniques they could be using to help reduce their worries or feelings of anxiety. It can also be a great time to use some of the workbooks mentioned above, particularly in the beginning or on days your child doesn’t feel like talking much or doesn’t quite understand where their feelings are coming from.

Talk Time is meant to be the only time your child discusses their worries during the day. Instead, you also set up a Worry Box (which can be any box, tin even a money box with a lid that closes shut) and each time your child experiences a worry they write it down on a piece of paper and place it into the box so it is “locked” away to be discussed at Talk Time, if they wish. During the day when your child is at school and doesn’t have access to the box, perhaps give them a small notebook they can use to jot down their worries throughout the day and then pop into the box when she got home or discuss at Talk Time.

Shifting thoughts through activities

Another tool for helping children combat their worries is through activity. The problem is that it’s not always practical to go for a walk or start doing a few jumping jacks to make the worries go away especially when your child is in class! Instead, try using an elastic/rubber wrist band or place a small stress ball in your child’s school jacket pocket. Every time they feel a worry growing inside of them, they flick the band or squeeze the ball to help shift their thoughts.

Breathe and affirmations

It may seem cliché but reminding your child to breathe also helps them to redirect their focus away from their worries onto their breath. By taking three deep breaths in and out aims to bring them back into a more present state. Sometimes it can also work well for them to repeat a daily affirmation they select each morning such as “I am calm”, “I am confident”, “Everything will be alright” or “I am strong” while they do this. I have even printed and laminated a set of small cards for this purpose – it also allows you to tailor them for your own child.

Night time relaxation and meditation for children

Try playing a recorded relaxation before your child goes to bed to help boost their confidence, reduce worries, and relax and help them go to sleep. Or you can even read them to your child yourself. I purchased a couple of great CDs and books from Relax Kids and have found them to be a fantastic resource. More recently, I discovered the Smiling Mind app which contains meditations for all ages and is another great option.

These are just a few of the techniques that have worked well in my family, however there are many, many other options out there to help reduce anxiety in children and may better suit your child. I sincerely hope some of these techniques help guide you and your child to also overcoming their anxiety, but remember that it’s always best to seek professional advice if you are at all concerned about your child’s level of anxiety.

I must add a disclaimer that the techniques listed above are strategies that worked well for my family. I am NOT a doctor or health professional and am in no way qualified to give medical advice. Every child is different and anxiety comes in many forms so it so it is usually best to work in conjunction with a professional therapist. Also, don’t forget to involve your child’s teacher in the process and explain some of the techniques you are using so they can also encourage the same process throughout the school day.


16 thoughts on “Anxiety in children – how to help when the worries take hold

  1. Great post, Erika. My heart goes out to your daughter. I have wondered whether my eldest suffers from anxiety. In the lead up to prep she did go through a phase of urgency to go to the toilet. A trip to the doctors confirmed there was no infection and he suggested she may be worried about school. I’ll keep an eye on her. Meanwhile, the school has taught all of the children a great breathing technique.

    • Thanks Renee. I guess some amount of worry is totally normal, it’s when it starts affecting their ability to participate in day to day life that you may need to look into it further. So great that the school offers and teaches techniques like breathing to their students, how fabulous is that?!

  2. It’s timely that you’ve written this post as Elliott’s separation anxiety has come back and I’m trying to figure out how to work with it. He’s still only 4 so although I think some of your suggestions are brilliant, I’m not quite sure he’ll understand or not. Back when he was just shy of 3 his separation anxiety was really bad and had both of us in tears, I just don’t want it to get back to that again. I might try and locate this book at the library. Thank you!

    • Yes, he may have some difficulties understanding some of the concepts in the books if he’s only 4 – my daughter was 8 when we first used it and even then I needed to explain some things to her. My other daughter also suffered some major separation anxiety around the age of 3-4 years. We sought some professional help for her at the time but it was really tricky because she was so young … maybe some books to help him identify or understand his feelings might be worth a try?

  3. Great post and good on you for seeking professional help for your daughter. I was an anxious child, to the point where I pulled my hair and eyelashes out. They never got me help thinking I would grow out of it, to be fire, not much was known about anxiety then. It took me until my early thirties to get rid of my anxiety.

    • Thanks Ashleigh. I think it’s really important to seek help if your child needs it, especially if you find a therapist who your child works really well with. We were really lucky in regards to this and the techniques we have learned have been life changing.

  4. This is great stuff. Thanks so much for sharing!

    My son used to have anxieties. A the age of four we went to counselling. They suggested I talk through everything with him … where we’re going, how we’ll get there, what we might expect when we arrive etc etc. IT was really great because now he talks himself through everything. He’s now 12 and his anxieties have all but disappeared. And when they do come back he actually initiates the conversation and we sit and listen to him talk himself through it. Relief! I just hope it lasts …

  5. Those sound like some great tips Erika, both my husband and I have had anxiety in our lives at different points in time so it’s something I’m aware to watch out for but your post particularly interested me as I have friends with kids experiencing this at the moment. I’ll be sure to pass this on to them.

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