Has this ever happened to you?
Your kid checked out in the middle of a conversation. Instead of paying attention to you, they started ignoring what you were saying. Or, they suddenly exploded with no warning at all.
Before you decide that either of these reactions is rooted in defiance or disrespect, let us ask you a question.
Did you know this could be a symptom of anxiety?
It might sound crazy at first, but let’s dig a little deeper. Anxiety is triggered whenever your kid’s brain perceives a threat to survival and activates their nervous system to respond. Sometimes, there is actual danger, and other times there isn't. In either case, your kid’s brain stops paying attention to everything else.
Now think about what this might look like if your kid is feeling intense anxiety about an upcoming recital or sports game. You might have mentioned it in passing, but your kid’s brain picked up on that topic as an immediate threat. All other systems in their body go “offline” as their nervous system kicks into high gear, and they focus on responding to this perceived danger. Externally, they could show this by checking out of the conversation with you and having difficulty concentrating. Or, they could erupt with anger or tears with no warning whatsoever.
Whatever their emotional response, the root cause was the same. It was anxiety, not defiant behavior. That then begs these two questions:
How do you recognize symptoms of anxiety in your kid? How can you help them manage it?
This is a tricky area to navigate, and we’ll be honest, you’ll probably get it wrong at one point or another. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent! We’ve got helpful guidelines to follow, but be sure to practice patience with yourself and your kid as you both tackle the problem of childhood anxiety.
1) Be curious about your kid’s anxious behavior.
The easiest way to miss out on symptoms of anxiety is to believe we know what our kids are thinking all the time. Let’s be honest, this would make our lives as parents so much easier, but that just isn’t reality. Instead, it’s time to practice curiosity. Whenever you notice sudden behavioral changes like zoning out or exploding, take a few steps back. Ask yourself:
What topics were we just talking about?
Has my kid reacted this way about the same thing before?
Is something happening that might make my kid feel anxious?
Once you’ve run through this list of internal questions, it’s time to bring your kid into the conversation. If they’ve just had an emotional outburst, it’d be wise to wait until your kid is calm enough to talk again. Whenever you do get the chance to sit down with them, start by explaining that you noticed their response and ask some questions in a calm and nonjudgemental way.
Is there something you feel worried about right now?
Do you feel like you can relax easily? If not, do you know what is causing you to feel that way?
How can I help you reduce anxiety in this situation?
These questions can help unlock a deeper look into your kid’s emotional state to reveal whether or not they’re struggling with anxiety.
2) Always show empathy toward your kid’s anxiety.
It’s safe to say we’ve all had moments in our life when we reached out for support and were immediately shut down. We needed a listening ear and instead received the cold shoulder. Do you remember how frustrating and hurtful that felt?
This is exactly what our kids will feel if we don’t approach their anxiety with empathy. This means going much deeper than responding “It’s going to be ok; there’s nothing to worry about” when your kid first opens up. Although we mean the best and are trying to give our kid comfort in the moment, this phrase actually shuts down the possibility of any more conversation. It’ll feel like a cold shoulder and will discourage them from coming to you with their anxiety in the future.
Instead, offer empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. Vocalize this with statements like:
I’d feel worried about this big test coming up too.
Dealing with school drama would make me feel uncomfortable.
There’s a lot riding on the game this weekend. I’d be anxious that it wouldn’t go well.
Whatever it is, hone in on the thing that’s fueling your kid’s anxiety. When you’ve gotten to the root situation, give your kid time to explain the emotions they’re feeling and validate what they’re experiencing (even if it doesn’t always make sense to you!). Practicing this with your kid builds trust and shows them that you’re safe to come to when their emotions and anxiety are starting to overwhelm them.
3) Develop proactive strategies to help with your kid’s anxiety.
In the heat of the moment, when their anxiety is running the highest, your kid will feel like it’s impossible to control those emotions. But, what if it didn’t have to go there? What if they were equipped with tools that helped keep them calm and in control?
This is where you come into play. As you work through your kid’s anxiety with them, teach them coping strategies to help manage those difficult emotions. Rather than trying to calm down after their anxiety has taken over, they can maintain control and de-escalate the situation on their own in healthy ways by learning helpful tools. There are tons out there so try as many as you can and see what sticks with your kid! Here are some common ones:
Return to the present
This is a simple but effective one. If your kid feels their anxiety starting to climb, have them come back to the present by naming simple physical sensations like “I feel the carpet on my feet” or “the chair I’m sitting in is smooth”.
This is another quick and easy tool for your kid. Have them name 5 things they see, 4 things they hear, 3 things they feel, 2 things they smell, 1 thing they taste.
Colors of the Rainbow
If a combination of numbers is a little tricky, switch it up a little. Have your kid look around the room, and find something red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple (add more colors if your kid’s favorite color isn’t in the rainbow.)
Breathing exercises are especially powerful for helping to manage anxiety. This exercise is simple and easy to remember: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat 4x. As your kid practices this, have them envision each breath like drawing a line of a box.
Don’t be fooled by the cute name. This technique is helpful to kids of any age! Simply have them cross their arms across their chest like they’re hugging themselves. Have them slowly tap their collarbones, alternating between left and right. Your kid can change how fast they tap; the key is to find the speed of tapping that feels soothing in the moment!
As we said, this is just a tiny sampling of the different techniques you can use to arm your kid against anxiety. It’s worth it to spend the time researching and trying out different ones until you find what suits your kid best!
Getting involved is the best thing you can do when your kid is struggling with anxiety.
While their behavior may seem surprising at first, you can come alongside and be the support they need. When you practice curiosity, offer empathy, and teach proactive strategies, you develop trust and empower your kid to handle their anxiety proactively. No matter the age, this will help your kid with their anxiety for the rest of their life!