Anxiety: When is it too much?

“I’m late, mom. I’m late! I can’t be late! I have a test… We have to go… NOW!” A moderate amount of anxiety in kids is actually normal, and helps them show up and achieve at school. A little bit of anxiety will help your child study for the next test, hoping to do well. It will get them pumped up for their next big game, help them get all their homework in their backpack, and keep them trying their best. Most high-achievers have learned to harness their anxiety and use it for their benefit, all the way into adulthood.

But when anxiety starts to cause negative behaviors, avoidance, and fear, it turns into a maladaptive force for your child. (A mental health professional would look at the intensity of your child’s distress, the impact on how they are functioning, and the duration of their fears to determine an underlying anxiety disorder.) I’ve worked with children who run away from situations, who refuse to speak to their teachers, who push and shove and mouth off, all resulting from underlying anxiety.

Parents see physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches, occurring frequently. Oftentimes there are negative behaviors, like tantrums and avoidance, which occur at home or on the way to school. Social settings may cause your child significant stress, if they are having difficulty processing the complex relationships of their peers.

If your child is having excessive worry, trouble with uncertainty, and extreme emotions associated with an event, there are some things you can do at home to help alleviate their worries.

1. When children are uncertain, give them choices rather than deciding for them.

“I know Joe’s birthday party sounds overwhelming, but he invited your because he is your friend. Should we try to go for a little bit? How long?”


2. Allow children to struggle, make mistakes and learn by trial and error vs. taking over

“I know you were worried about that science test, so you stayed up really late studying. But this morning you seemed extra tired. What’s your game plan for the next science test?”


3. Label and accept your child’s emotional response rather than criticizing them

“I can see that this is making you worry. You yelled at your sister earlier, and now you’re being short with me. It’s really hard to give a report in front of the whole class.”


4. Promote your child’s development of creative self-help strategies

“Let’s use your three “calm” strategies before we work on this presentation anymore.”

Calming strategies can be anything that works for your child. For example:

*Deep, long breathing (have your child lie on the floor with a book on their belly and try to “push” the book up with each breath”)

*Visual imagery (take a “special journey” to a favorite place by talking about what you see, hear, and feel)

*Give a concrete name to their anxiety (e.g. “The Dragon”) and help them “fight back” mentally to beat their enemy. From “The Anxiety Cure for Kids: A Guide for Parents: “Anxiety is like an imaginary Dragon in your head. The dragon seems to be really scary. You can learn to tame the dragon with help from the Wizard you also have in your own head. The Wizard will teach you powerful magic to tame the anxiety Dragon.”


5. Attend to “brave behaviors” and ignore anxious behaviors (crying, frequent questions.)

“That’s good breathing. You are being so brave.”


If your child is having heightened levels of anxiety which are negatively affecting their life, it is wise to consult with your pediatrician. Most children do not grow out of untreated anxiety, so the earlier it is treated, the better the prognosis. A therapist can also help educate you in home strategies to make your daily interactions more positive and reassuring for your child.


10 Essentials for Self-Soothing

According to Dr. Read Sulik, there are 10 essentials children must learn to master to develop the ability to self-soothe.  Parents play an integral role in helping their children develop these strategies.  Take a look at the list below and think about how you might use each one with your child.

Sleeping – helping your child develop a healthy sleep routine

Eating – helping your child learn to eat a healthy and balanced diet

Moving – helping your child engage in the right type of calming physical activity

Breathing – helping your child learn to practice self-soothing skills

Thinking – helping your child notice and change their thoughts for the better

Speaking – helping your child put words to their inner world

Connecting – helping your child develop their support system

Building – helping your child foster their natural talents, strengths, and build their self-esteem

Tending – helping your child develop mindfulness and self-awareness

Seeking – helping your child get the right help when it is needed

I know many parents who are wonderful teachers for their children.  The wise mothers and fathers of my oldest students are constantly practicing these strategies with their children, even once they enter middle and high school.  Helping them develop healthy sleeping, eating, and moving habits.  Teaching them to understand and speak their thoughts, and build their strengths.  Giving them the tools to seek the right help, to tend to their own thoughts, and to connect with others who will support them.  Some ideas may change as your child gets older, but the ability to regulate one’s behavior is still a critical piece of learning and self-confidence.