How Parents Can Recognize and Minimize Anxiety in Children and Young Adults
The freedom and playfulness of just being a child has declined over the past several decades. That loss of play is having a negative effect on the emotional development of our young people and “..has led to a rise in anxiety, depression and problems of attention and self-control.”
“Since about 1955, children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” says Peter Gray, a professor emeritus of psychology at Boston College, who is quoted in an article, “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids are More Anxious, Depressed” in The Atlantic.
The essential feature of “free play” is that it’s not aimlessly hanging around, even though it’s self-directed and not part of an organized activity.
Gray says “..free play is a testing ground for life” because it “provides critical life experiences without which young children cannot develop into confident and competent adults.”
This play time gives children a chance to solve their own problems and helps them grow up feeling they are in control of their lives. Gray says, “…the loss of playtime lessons about the ability to exert control over some life circumstances can set the scene for anxiety and depression.”
The Positive Reason for Anxiety in Children and Teenagers
The first step is to understand that anxiety is a normal and helpful emotion, says Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, who is a specialist in child and adolescent psychology.
The right amount of anxiety helps children learn to be careful when crossing the street, allows teenager prepare for tests, and helps young adults handle college or job interviews. A proper amount of anxiety helps people of any age determine who may be risky and who may be friendly when meeting new people.
Anxiety is a problem with it takes over and impedes a child’s normal developmental progress and gets the young person off-track from their peer group, says Albano.
“What happens for some kids that is there’s too much anxiety and they begin to interpret things in a very anxious way,” Albano says in a program on Columbia Psychiatry Blog Talk Radio.
“Then the key is the child stops trying to take on things that bring on anxiety,” said Albano. “If it keeps the child from going to school, that’s avoidance to the extreme.” Too much anxiety can keep young adults from going to a college or job interview.
Recognizing the Three Main Types of Anxiety in Children and Young Adults
Being aware of the three main types of anxiety can help parents figure out how to help their child learn to manage it on their own, says Albano.
The three most common categories of anxiety are:
- Separation anxiety: This often shows up in younger children between 4 and 6 years old. It’s fear of being away from home or loved ones because something terrible will happen to them or you.
- Social anxiety: This is more likely to arise when children are 7 or 8 years old or in adolescence. It’s fear of being embarrassed or making fool of yourself. Social anxiety often lasts past adolescence and is the most common mental health condition in adults. At any age, it can be a fear of performing poorly, as the person thinks about it, but others don’t see it that way.
- Generalized anxiety: This is worrying about “what if” on too many things. It’s worry that doesn’t stop. Albano describes it as ”worry run amok.”
If any of these types of anxiety are noticed, parents can begin by taking some basics steps to encourage their children, teenagers or young adults to become more independent in relation to managing this anxiety.
What Parents Can Do to Help Children and Teenagers Manage Anxiety
Parents sometimes tend to want to make things better, so they intervene too much, and that keeps the child from learning how to manage anxiety, says Albano. Short-term solutions like talking with teacher or doing too much of the child’s homework project are not the most beneficial solutions in the long-run.
One situation where it might be necessary to intervene is in the case of bullying.
Otherwise, adults can be most helpful by discussing the situation and modeling self-management, or if necessary, working in collaboration with a mental health professional.
Three Steps to Help Children Learn to Self-Manage Anxiety
- Discuss the issue: Sit down with your child or teenager and ask what happened or what the child thinks might happen because of the troubling situation. Be gentle, but direct. Say things like, “What were you thinking when that happened?” Talk about other times when something similar may have happened. For instance, “What happened the last time you went to Johnny’s house and you didn’t get along?”
- Model self-management: As you sit down to discuss the issue, take a deep breath and be a model for self-calming and positive planning. Help the child develop a plan to deal with the troublesome situation and carry it out. For instance, “If you talk with your teacher about your homework project just before it’s time to go home, I can pick you up and we can go for ice cream.” That can provide a specific timeline to carry out the plan and to celebrate achieving the goal.
- Exposure: Help the child or teenager get used to anxiety-producing situations one small step at a time. If the child is uncomfortable going to a birthday party with kids from the classroom, suggest going to the party for half an hour and then being picked up by a parent to do something else enjoyable, like go to the park.
Dealing With the Emotion in Three Parts
It’s helpful if parents keep in mind that every emotion can be broken down into three parts. Then they can work through each part with the child or young adult. That’s a model for the young person to learn so they can do it on their own.
- Feeling: What am I physically experiencing? Am I trembling or shaking?
- Thinking: Am I thinking that I can’t handle it? That I’ll be embarrassed?
- Doing: What am I going to do? What’s a reasonable plan that I can carry out?
If the anxiety is persistent or impedes the child’s development, for instance if they keep finding excuses not to go to school, or for teenagers, not to interact with their peers, working with a therapist can help. Cognitive behavioral therapy, especially, can help children, teenagers and young adults learn to manage these anxiety-producing situations and ease into normal, emotionally enriching patterns of development.
Albano, Anne Marie, “How Parents Can Recognize and Minimize Anxiety in Children and Young Adults,” Columbia Psychiatry Blog Talk Radio, May 27, 2015.
Entin, Esther, “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed,”
The Atlantic, Oct. 12, 2011.