My earliest memory of my anxiety happened when I was about five. My dad left for work every morning about 5 a.m. I would hear his car engine start, and I’d leap to peek out my bedroom window blind, just in time to watch his car zip down the gravel driveway. Then I would pray that he’d make it to work safely. I did this every morning.
Throughout my kindergarten through college years, I would struggle to breathe during math lessons. My stomach would immediately begin to ache, and I would fumble with the pencils on my desk. I never understood math, yet I was forced to do it day after day. My hands would tremble, and my heart beat would quicken.
I was also terrified of breaking the rules, even as a teen—those years when rebellion overtakes common sense. I didn’t speed, I was always home by curfew, and I sure wasn’t going to drink, smoke, or have sex. Perfectionism—as I later discovered—can be part of anxiety. Other anxiety symptoms include body aches, sleeplessness, and forgetfulness.
I was officially diagnosed with anxiety when I was in my thirties. After conversations with a few trusted friends, all of whom had anxiety themselves, I knew it was time to see my doctor. Of course, talking to my doctor about anxiety gave me—you guessed it—anxiety.
The appointment was hardly monumental. The doctor told me many women have anxiety. In fact, 33% of women will have an anxiety disorder in her lifetime. My doctor asked me what I wanted to do about it. I confessed I’d tried all the natural remedies I could think of, unfortunately to no avail. We chose a medication, and I left with a prescription in hand.
The thought of taking anxiety medication also gave me anxiety. What if I became a different—and worse—person? What if the side effects were unbearable? The worst possible outcome was that the meds didn’t work. Of course, I read up on all the potential side effects which, of course, gave me more anxiety.
Turns out, the meds were like my appointment–not monumental. I was tired and a little lightheaded the first two weeks, and then I was good. The panic attacks ceased. I still had anxiety, but it went from a nine to a two. I was shocked at how a teeny white pill could be so magical.
A few months into my new anti-anxiety regime, one of my children started complaining of stomach aches—every single morning before school. At first, I thought maybe the issue could be a food allergy. But when I stepped back, I saw other classic childhood anxiety symptoms including emotional outbursts, pervasive fears, and nail-biting.
This wasn’t a short-lived season. The issues continued for months on end. That’s when I knew that my child also had anxiety. And I sure didn’t want them to wait until their thirties to get diagnosed and helped.
My child isn’t alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children have an anxiety disorder. There are several different and distinct anxiety disorders. These include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Treating children with anxiety can be tricky. Medication isn’t always the go-to since many aren’t approved for children and the side effects can be difficult to manage. There are, however, strategies parents can use to help their children.
First, I made sure my vocabulary was helpful and not harmful. In my own experience, telling a person with anxiety to “calm down” or “chill out” is unhelpful and dismissive.
Instead, I ask questions. When my child’s anxiety is obvious, I ask, “Are you feeling anxious right now?” After we figure out what the cause of the anxiety is, I ask, “What can I do to help you right now?” or issue reminders of what has historically provided some relief and safety.
Likewise, I gave my child the actual term—anxiety. Because being worried or nervous isn’t the same thing as having an anxiety disorder. I’ve also shared that I truly believe our anxiety diagnosis is a gift, because it gives us a foundation to build on–a starting point.
I also implemented practical anxiety-reducing strategies and tools. We painted all our kids’ bedrooms in soothing colors to set the tone of rest and rejuvenation. For my child with anxiety, we made sure their bedroom had darkening curtains, a beanbag chair on the floor, a soft nightlight, and sensory toys in a designated bin–creating a safe sanctuary.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is also very helpful for a person with anxiety. Not only are we taught anxiety management techniques, but we’re offered resources. Based on what we’ve learned, our family prioritizes sleep, free and imaginative play (preferably outdoors), and healthy eating. Less technology is better, especially for tweens and teens who are becoming increasingly depressed and anxious.
One important thing we do is make sure our kids aren’t over-scheduled. Of course, we help our kids excel in areas they are gifted or talented—but putting a child with anxiety in multiple situations in which they’re expected to perform can be counterproductive. Likewise, we’re picky about social activities. We don’t say yes to every invitation.
Activities like guided yoga and meditation can also help a child manage their anxiety. There are free resources such as Insight Timer, an app, and Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube. These can be done as a family or with just one parent and the child. Journaling, coloring, or crocheting can also be beneficial. Likewise, exercise–anything gross motor, really–and being outdoors where we get all that vitamin D, helps reduce anxiety symptoms.
If you suspect your child is anxious, it’s important to seek professional help. A psychologist, psychiatrist, or pediatrician can evaluate your child and render a diagnosis when appropriate. Then you can move forward by finding resources and implementing strategies.
Looking back, my 30+ years of undiagnosed anxiety turned out to be exactly what I needed to recognize my child’s anxiety early on. Now that I know better, I can do better. And my child is going to be supported and encouraged.