Q Our 6-year-old daughter, Zena, is very anxious. Every night she has to be reassured there are no monsters under the bed or in the closet. Recently, she agreed to a sleepover with her best friend. The friend’s mother called at midnight to ask me to pick up Zena as she was so anxious, they could not calm her down. Zena said she was worried something awful was going to happen to me and that she needed to go home. Her father and I recently divorced, so I wonder if this has anything to do with her behavior. What can I do to help lessen Zena’s anxiety?
A There are some common types of anxiety that children experience:
Social anxiety – Children with this anxiety fear social situations because they worry that others will judge or humiliate them. These anxieties may appear, for example, as a fear of eating or speaking in front of others.
Specific phobias – Some kids will feel an extreme, irrational fear that is disproportionate to the threat, such as an intense fear of dogs, insects or thunderstorms.
Separation anxiety – Children with this type of anxiety are extremely anxious when away from parents or caregivers. They will refuse to attend events that separate them from those they love because they worry that bad things will happen when they are not together. This is what Zena is experiencing.
While separation anxiety is normal at a certain stage in very young children, as children get older it can become troublesome if it causes a child to limit activities, worry excessively or avoid being away from parents or caregivers.
You ask what you can do to help reduce Zena’s anxiety. In an article from the Harvard Medical School entitled Anxiety in Children, Dr. Mona Potter, the medical director of McLean Anxiety Mastery Program, encourages “children to practice detective thinking to catch, check, and change anxious thoughts.” Additionally, Dr. Potter suggests that children “approach rather than avoid anxiety-provoking triggers.” You might consider working with a mental health professional to help you learn these techniques and others to halt the anxiety before it gets worse.
Here are some additional suggestions to help children cope with anxiety:
- Explore future anxiety-provoking places and situations. Many parents have experienced how helpful it is to take their child to visit a new school and meet the teacher before classes begin. This exposure to make the situation seem familiar instead of threatening can be done in other situations as well.
- Help your child be the boss of her anxiety. Encourage her to give the anxiety a name and to draw pictures of it. When you notice her getting anxious, ask if that is (the name of the anxiety) appearing. Simply bringing awareness to these feelings can help a child feel more in control.
- Allow the distress but suggest ways to get rid of anxious energy. Do things such as running back and forth, breathing exercises or naming things that you can see, smell, taste, touch and hear.
- Model calmness. Children will pick up on a parent’s anxiousness and may display it back to you. So, avoid overreacting to situations or showing your own anxieties. Your body language and words should suggest relaxation.
- Keep healthy routines and discuss any changes ahead of time. Children are comforted by sameness.
- Maintain healthy practices like eating healthy meals and getting enough sleep.
Note: Anxiety in children is often minimal and short-lived. Yet, in rare cases, it can be extreme. Children with extreme anxiety need professional help.
You ask if your divorce could be a cause of Zena’s anxiety. While we can’t know how much this experience may be contributing to her anxiety, if at all, disturbing childhood experiences can be a factor. Zena will need time, love and reassurance from both of her parents.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.