Q. In many situations, my friend’s son Travis gets very anxious, then blows up or starts crying uncontrollably. He is best friends with my nine-year-old son and often spends time at our house because his mother is dealing with some problems with Travis’ father, her ex-husband. His anxieties seem to have intensified recently and he doesn’t know how to stop the outburst before it starts. Why are some children more anxious than others and how can one help them to be less anxious?
A. All children experience anxiety, which is expected and normal at various developmental stages. Oftentimes, this anxiety disappears with time and parental reassurance. A small number of children have excessive worry and anxiety that persists no matter what parents do. One theory is that anxiety is related to a shortage of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain.
Another possible trigger for bouts of anxiety and emotional outbursts in children is behavior of parents or caregivers. Some parents are unable to control their own stress and anxiety, causing them to unintentionally model for their children poor ways to cope with these issues. The parent may also reduce attention to his or her child to the point that it causes stress for the child. It is not unusual for a child to respond by becoming aggressive or irritable. Some kids even rebel against parents and rules and become defensive.
Here are some ways a parent or other adult can help kids handle anxiety and stress:
1. Pay attention to the child. Encourage him to talk with you and to ask questions. Listen more than you talk but do have a discussion.
2. Find out what’s going on in your child’s life. If he reports a problem with a playmate, teacher or the school, ask him to brainstorm and discuss a solution this problem and encourage him to regain control of the situation.
3. Help your child to feel secure. Encourage routines and stick to them. Avoid focusing solely on your own problems and stressors to the point that you forget about soothing your child and making him feel safe.
4. Use humor to cope with your own stressors and kids will learn to use this coping skill.
5. Show self-control in your own stressful situation. Try to avoid modeling excessive crying or incessant talking about your difficult situation. If you need help, get help from a professional so you can model self-control.
6. Avoid putting pressure on an anxious child to be the best or to be involved in too many activities. Find a level of participation with which he can cope effectively.
7. Ensure that you and your anxious child get enough sleep, exercise and good nutrition. Sleep-deprived children are often anxious and can exhibit irritability and aggression.
8. Get professional help from a therapist for your child if none of the above helps reduce his or her anxiety.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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