Anxiety Therapy for Children and Teens

ANXIETY IN CHILDREN AND TEENS

Anxiety in children and teens is a growing concern among parents. Our child focused therapies are collaborative and help families find calm.

Caring for a Child or Teen with Anxiety Can Be Challenging

All children experience fear and worry, some with great intensity. Anxiety in children is one of the most common struggles that youth face (along with depression [link]). Particular moments in childhood when serious anxieties develop in kids include when parents leave (separation anxiety) or anxiety around meeting with friends or going to school. While some kids develop a general anxiety without a particular cause.

If your child is experiencing fear or worry to a major degree they are showing some common signs of anxiety in children. Perhaps you have been suspecting it for a while, finding it strange that your child is more avoidant than your other children or your friend’s children. We know that it can feel overwhelming to care for and be responsible for a child that isn’t coping well with the world.

Many parents start noticing or addressing their child’s anxiety when they see grades slip. Students that are anxious tend to think of the school work as too overwhelming and so procrastinate in order to avoid the stress. They think “ this is too overwhelming, I better not try.”

Understand that many parents have been on this journey before you and we can help you and your child make sense of these difficult emotions.

Signs of Anxiety in Children

It can be difficult to determine whether your child has depression as many children lack the words to describe how they feel. Some children also don’t like to share their inner emotions for any number of reasons. Others try but end up frustrated. Even parents that are generally able to describe how their child behaves, and that can tell that something is wrong, may not be able to name it as anxiety themselves. 

If you are a parent of an anxious child, go ahead and list 2-3 traits about them, if “nervous”, “squirmy” or “avoidant” are used, those are often signs of anxiety. If any of these traits become the dominant emotion that your child displays then you would benefit from talking with one of our child therapists about anxiety.

Other common behaviors and signs that indicate anxiety in children

 

  • Becoming anxious when separated from parents – separation anxiety.
  • Extreme phobias such as fear of certain animals, foods, situations, etc.
  • Anxiety over social interactions – social anxiety.
  • General feelings of anxiety regardless of the situation (general anxiety). Some kids with general anxiety have physical symptoms associated with daily life. These can include general fatigue, headaches, stomachaches. 
  • Regular panic attacks – presenting as heavy breathing, shaking, or dizziness, etc.
  • Changes in sleep: too little or too much, or persistent nightmares.
  • Persistent “nervousness, “squirminess” or “avoidant behavior.”
  • Irritability, some quick tempers and mood swings can be caused by being agitated/anxious regularly. 
  • Changes in appetite – Our mind and gut are deeply connected, in fact a lot of stomach issues are psychological, so any changes in eating habits can be a sign of anxiety in children. 
  • Constantly seeking approval/reassurance.
  • Overly compliant/eager to please, constantly worrying about parental responses.
  • Intense fears about safety of themselves or their loved ones. 
  • Refusing to go to school.
  • Low self esteem and self confidence.

You should know:

In many children, anxiety can be very sensory. For example, if your child can’t sit still or is constantly in motion it may be due to any one of their five(ish) senses. Perhaps scratchy clothing or a food intolerance may be to blame. If children don’t move and exercise regularly, their sense of balance can get off, creating agitation as well. There are a number of sensory issues that we identify in children if we suspect that it may be a major contributor to their anxiety. You can investigate this yourself as well, if your child is acting anxious ask about each of their senses and see if one is irritating them. 

Also know that:

Depression has a strong overlap with anxiety. If your child has a mix of anxious behavior and depressed behavior, they may have some combination of the two. Read more on our depression in children page.

If you have seen any of these signs of anxiety in your child and are noticing changes in their attitudes towards separating from parents, making friends, attending school, changes in grades or notice a behavior that is causing a barrier to their development, schedule a consultation with our child therapists. Working on these emotions and behaviors as early as possible best prepares your child for proper emotional and social development as they progress through school.

 

 

Our Anxiety Treatment Plan for Children and Teens:

Our treatment plan is different for every child and every age. Younger children experience the world through play, so kids younger than 10 often see the best benefit from our play or art therapists. With younger kids we encourage them to conceptualize their anxiety in an understandable way. While teens are better able to sit and talk about their inner life on the couch.

Overall, we understand that many children are able to feel that something is wrong, but their coping methods tend to cause more harm than good. That’s why our focus is uniquely on developing emotional understanding, building coping skills and collaborating on practical steps in day to day life (and school). We help children by drawing from a variety of psychological methods to see which will best suit their needs. These methods include CBT, DBT, mindfulness and other evidence based approaches.

Anxiety in Children
(2-12 yrs old)

Anxiety in young children includes many behaviors common at this age, again the concern is if these behaviors are hindering the child’s development. For example, children with severe separation anxiety may cry and cling to a parent’s leg at every separation. A socially anxious child may ask to skip school or avoid friends at playtime. A child with phobias may avoid going outside to avoid a barking dog.

Major transitions at this age can also have an outsized effect on children at this age: divorce, moving, changing schools, skipping a grade. Anxiety is normal and healthy in such situations, but when it becomes paralyzing to a child, help should be sought.  

Bullying and Anxiety

This age (and especially the teenage years) is when many kids experience bullying. Notably, there is a significant connection between bullying and anxiety/depression. In many ways bullying is traumatic for children and leaves them on edge worrying that “something bad will happen to me soon.” We work with kids to conceptualize bullying and find healthier coping strategies. Often the self-esteem we develop during therapy helps empower children during bullying situations. Read more about bullying and children here.

Anxiety in Teens (13-18 years old)

Most people begin to show signs of anxiety before they turn 21, so the teenage years are where to keep an eye out for anxious behavior in order to treat it early. At this age the most common anxieties are general anxiety and social anxiety. Bullying too remains a major component of anxiety at this age. For all these struggles, rates of suicide among teens have increased over the past few years. Another reason why the teenage years are a critical time to take action.

When it comes to social anxiety, our therapists have seen that the number of teens that self- identify as being socially anxious has grown significantly over the past 10 years. It’s important for teens to work on social anxiety early on because the teenage years are when we learn most of our socialization skills. General anxiety is closely associated with stress, so as schoolwork and expectations for the future increase in intensity (especially in high school), general anxiety can begin to develop.

Teenage Anxiety and Social Media: A Growing Concern

A new concern that has been highly associated with anxiety rates in teens is the use of social media. We recommend watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix in order to see first hand the effects of social media on teens. The two teens shown in the docudrama are deeply impacted by their interactions on social media that cause a rollercoaster of emotions. 

With social media, too many likes leads to euphoria (a similar reaction in the brain as addictive substances). Too few likes and they fall into a deep sadness, often questioning their value and body image. We see such struggles in our work with teens almost universally. 

Note: The teenage years see a growing separation from parents as they lose importance in a kid’s life as friends take over that role. It can be difficult for teens to share with parents their inner struggles and feelings. This is why in our therapy sessions we make every effort for our therapists to create a non-judgemental space where teens can openly share their struggles without worrying about parental approval or shame. For many teens (especially those with few friends) it is the only place that they can truly talk and that can make all the difference.

What Can Parents Do About Anxiety in Children?

 

Personalize their anxiety. Talk with your child about what their anxiety feels or looks like. Ask them to give it a name. Many adults find benefit thinking of anxiety as a tiger that is always on the prowl. Some kids can find the same benefit in thinking of their anxiety as something outside of themselves that they can have a relationship with and be the boss of. Our therapists use this technique often, so if you find yourself at a loss for guiding your child through this conversation, meet with us first. 

Are you yourself anxious? Many kids model the anxieties that their parents project. Kids are like sponges and soak up all kinds of thoughts and behaviors without question. You may not even realize you are acting in an anxious way, if so read more about our approach to anxiety in adults.

Don’t encourage your kid to suppress their anxiety: “Stop thinking like that!” Saying this is like asking someone to not picture a purple elephant in their minds, everyone will do it and the more they try not to think of it, the more it pops in their head (try it yourself). 

Instead, help them understand it. Encourage them to “blow off their anxious energy.” Some kids shake their arms or go run outside, others might want to picture their anxiety for a moment to know that it can’t hurt them. There are many healthy ways that kids can build tolerance to their anxiety and cope with it in their lives. 

Exposure helps. If you have a socially anxious kid, weaning them off of being afraid to talk to strangers can start with small actions with people like waitstaff. It may start with saying what they would say to the waiter with you, then progressing to them ordering dessert directly, and eventually a full blown comfort with strangers over time. 

Exercise is important. Like we mentioned earlier, children are very sensitive to balance. If they haven’t been moving around a lot they can feel a slight disorientation that starts the cycle of anxiety. 

Parenting Suggestions – DON’Ts

DON’T criticise your child’s struggles. Focus on progress both in therapy sessions and in daily life. Criticism and contempt can shut down all the progress a child has made with one small poorly thought out statement. 

DON’T label your child’s social anxiety as shyness if you want them to overcome their anxiety. Oftentimes labelling shyness only makes children feel more comfortable in avoiding social situations. 

DON’T blame yourself or your teen for any mental health struggles. Too many parents think that they have total control over the development of their child. While parenting is an important part of development, many factors change what struggles a child will face (biological, situational, environmental). This blame game can continue in circles indefinitely so focus on solutions instead. Provide gentle support and guidance instead.

Break-free and begin your journey to

Your best
YOU.

There is a future life where trauma does not control your day. Imagine yourself feeling calm, confident and ready to handle new situations with ease. The tools to living the life you have always envisioned are here, at your fingertips.

LifeStance Health can help.

 

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