What You Need to Know About Childhood Anxiety

Feeling anxious about the rise in childhood anxiety today? Read on to discover what anxiety is, how to help kids through anxious moments, and what our Father God wants us to remember during anxious times. 

Anxious Times

I remember the exasperated look on her face. This parent of a 6-year-old was baffled by her child’s unwillingness to board the school bus, attend Sunday school, or venture away from the safety and comfort of home much at all.

Her once ambitious toddler had become an anxious grade-schooler who just wouldn’t budge. And no one knew why.

As her children’s pastor, I was puzzled, too. My kind smile and small talk didn’t soothe her. Pairing her with a peer buddy didn’t help. Saying we’d miss her or promising to do her favorite things didn’t change her mind. She was NOT leaving mom and dad. Time passed and, much to her parents’ relief, she seemed to “grow out of it.” I was thrilled to see her sing solos, read Scripture, and love Bible adventures again.

Years later, I personally experienced debilitating anxiety—the kind that made me physically brace myself for undefined harm that could come my way. Anxiety told me that doing things I once loved would hurt me. It made me flee mundane situations that just felt like too much. Once again, anxiety baffled me.

As I worked through this new, unwelcome condition with a therapist, I recalled my young friend and her family from years past. I now have a new level of empathy, compassion, and patience for the children and families in my life who lived with it, too.

Anxiety is no longer an issue—it’s personal. It’s not a problem to fix for kids, it’s a valid, though-unwanted-condition to acknowledge and bravely dismiss. Perhaps you regularly work through it, too.

Anxiety on the Rise

You may have heard that anxiety is on the rise in children today. It’s true. According to an article on American Family Physician’s website, “anxiety orders are the most common psychiatric conditions in children and adolescents, affecting nearly 1 in 12 children and 1 in 4 adolescents.”

It’s tempting to become anxious and worried about the anxiety epidemic, isn’t it? But as people who love and care for children today, let’s take a deep breath (really!) and know that anxiety is also more treatable than ever. (This article from the American Psychological Association recognizes both the issue and the improvements in care that offer hope and help to families and individuals who now struggle with anxiety.)

Although anxiety impacts 21st century life in new ways, it doesn’t change God’s steadfast love and care for his children—including you and me.

Overcoming Anxiety

The first step to overcoming anxiety is understanding what it is. For me, that came through personal experience and through helpful conversations with licensed therapists, like my friend Mandy.

Mandy Milner is a licensed professional counselor. She’s also a friend of God, a wife, a mom, and one of my closest friends. I wanted to understand anxiety better, so I asked Mandy to explain 1) what anxiety is, 2) how parents and caregivers can help children work through anxiety, and 3) what our loving Father God might want to remind those of us of who face anxiety with children we love. Here’s what she said:

What is anxiety?

Mandy explains:

Anxiety happens when our brains detect danger and move us into survival mode, but we’re not actually in a dangerous situation.

Our brain’s ability to detect danger and cue our body to move into fight, flight, or freeze is good and normal and God-given—it’s great that we have a system that kicks into place when we’re in danger and helps us get to safety as quickly as possible!

Anxiety can be a good thing! For example, if we run into a bear in the woods, we want our brains to detect “Bear! Danger!” in a fraction of a second, and then either stop us in our tracks so the bear doesn’t notice us (freeze), help us run away as fast as we’ve ever run in our lives (flight), or give us extra energy and strength to battle the bear and win (fight). 

But sometimes that survival system gets triggered by things that aren’t best responded to by fighting, fleeing, or freezing—say, when we’re trying to take a math test, feeling left out at recess, or worried about a sick family member. An anxious brain may see the risk in those types of situations and set off the “danger” alarm bells. Suddenly we have lots of extra energy coursing through our bodies, our thoughts are racing (but not really taking us anywhere useful), and we feel afraid and overwhelmed.

Anxiety is less about the specific situation and more about the fear of the specific situation.

And when we’re in that activated state of fight-flight-freeze, our brains aren’t able to process logically—literally, the part of our brain that does logic, planning, and big-picture thinking is shut down (and this is especially true in kid brains).

Try to tell an anxious kid who’s in fight-flight-freeze that they’re not thinking logically and they need to just consider the facts, and, well, you’re not going to get very far. They can’t do that in that moment—they can’t access that part of their brain, and they just feel more frustrated and scared and alone in their anxiety when we respond that way.

Work through anxiety.

Mandy suggests these simple steps for parents and caregivers who are working through anxious moments with children.

  1. Acknowledge the feeling. “I can tell you feel scared. I’m here.”
  2. Share your calm. Our brains and bodies tend to mirror those around us, and this is especially true for kids. So let the kids see you take a few deep breaths. As you breathe, silently thank Jesus for holding you and your child in this tough moment.
  3. Anxiety turns off the “logic brain” so playfully help kids turn it back on.
    1. Find colors. “Can you help me find something blue in this room?”
    2. Count to calm. “Let’s count backward from 100 by 7s.”
    3. “Pretend my finger is a birthday candle and blow it out. Whew!”
    4. Get moving. “Let’s dance!” (Cue your favorite song.)
    5. Focus on truth. “God is with us and Jesus loves us, this I know.” “We’re God’s kids and God will help us get through this together!”

Remember, there are great children’s books (here’s a list from Amazon), resources, and therapy strategies that mental health professionals utilize with children today. Consider connecting with a counselor in your church or community for more help and information.

Our Father cares.

Mandy’s faith and identify as a God’s daughter and friend has helped to shape her gracious response to anxiety. She notes:

God’s story in the Bible is full reminders that God knows our anxious tendencies and responds proactively and reassuringly. Take the angels message to Mary in Luke 1 for example: “Don’t be afraid!” And the angel’s proclamation to shepherds in Luke 2: “This is good news that will bring you joy!” I’ve often read “don’t be afraid” in a voice of condemnation, like “stop it, you’re doing it wrong,” but I don’t believe that’s what God is really trying to communicate to his people. I think it just indicates that he knows us and cares about our emotions even as he brings us into these watershed moments in his plan.

God loves you and your child deeply. God created your ability to feel emotions, and he feels them too—emotions aren’t bad, they’re a reflection of the Father’s character. AND God is not a prisoner of his emotions, and he doesn’t want you or your child to be either. God wants to equip us to navigate our big feelings, and he has grace for us if we’re messy (and we often are) in that process.

Want to learn more about helping children with anxiety?

Check out What Is an Anxiety Disorder and How Can I Help a Child With Anxietyand 20 No-Fail Tips for Helping Preschoolers with Separation Anxiety.”  

Mandy Milner is a licensed professional counselor who lives and works in State College, Pennsylvania. Mandy received her MA in community counseling from Slippery Rock University and has worked at 6 different universities in counseling and other student-focused roles. When Mandy is not at work, she enjoys reading a great book, sipping tea, knitting, visiting new places, and living ordinary moments alongside family and friends. 

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