Coping Skills for Anxiety in Children

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health issues of childhood and adolescence. Anxiety disorders cause extreme fear and worry, and changes in a child’s behavior, sleep, eating or mood. Parents should be cognizant of ways to help their child deal with stress and anxiety at a young age so it doesn’t worsen or compound into other mental health issues.

Parents can teach their child coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety. Coping skills help children manage anxiety in a healthy way. Children can feel stress and anxiety for many different reasons, whether it is a parent’s divorce, controversial world news or a relative’s illness. Academic or social pressures can also increase stress. Some children are people pleasers, perfectionists or have type A personalities, which can contribute to anxiety. Parents should teach their child how to manage their time and responsibilities to prevent feelings of being stressed, overwhelmed or overcommitted. Parents should also be cautious when discussing serious issues when their pre-adolescent children are near because children will often pick up on their parents’ anxieties and start to worry themselves.

Dr. Natalie Krenz, clinical psychologist in the Children’s Behavioral Health unit, said parents can teach the following coping skills to their pre-adolescent children struggling with anxiety:

  • Deep breathing
    • Use the “sniff the flowers” and “blow bubbles” technique
      • Teach child to relax by taking a deep breath in (like they are sniffing flowers) and taking a deep breath out (like they are blowing out bubbles)
      • Since this idea uses imaginary flowers and bubbles, children can use this technique anywhere
  • Muscle relaxation
    • Use the “squeeze lemons” technique
      • Teach child to imagine they are squeezing the lemon juice from the lemon and then shaking the lemon juice out
      • This demonstrates the tensing and relaxation of the muscles

Parents should take steps to help their child deal with stress and anxiety at a very young age. Dr. Krenz said being a good role model by modeling healthy techniques to cope with anxiety is very effective. A parent may tell their child they had a stressful day, so they are going to take a break and do something relaxing – going on a walk, taking a bath, engaging in a hobby such as painting or reading, or partaking in deep breathing exercises.

Another important step parents can take to help children cope with anxiety and stress is to communicate to children that it’s okay to feel scared, worried or stressed. Parents should be sure to validate their child’s feelings first, then work together to come up with a solution to cope with stress in a healthy way.

Parents should not only model self-care for their children, but they should also encourage their child to partake in self-care on a regular basis. Important self-care methods for children include getting 10-11 hours of sleep per night for ages 5-10 and 8-10 hours of sleep for ages 10-17, having a balanced diet, and avoiding the use of electronics before bed.

Trauma of any form, including physical, sexual or emotional abuse, dangerous living situations, academic issues, personality tendencies or certain genetic components can cause anxiety in children.

Some children have learning disabilities, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or a high-achieving personality, which can contribute to stress at school. A child’s personality type – more introverted or timid – could contribute to development of anxiety.

“Low Socioeconomic status (SES) children are also more at risk for developing anxiety,” Dr. Krenz said, “due to the tendency of low SES families living in neighborhoods that are not safe.” This could result in children being prone to experiencing an event that is traumatic for them, such as gun shots. Dr. Krenz said the likelihood for anxiety depends on what the child perceives as traumatic.

Genetic components can also contribute to anxiety. If a parent experienced anxiety at a young age, the child is more likely to have the genetic components for anxiety.

“A parent should seek professional help if their child is dealing with anxiety and stress that interferes with their functioning; the child can’t control anxious feelings and it worsens as time goes on,” Dr. Krenz said. If the child is not engaging in self-care or missing school, parents should consider these as telltale indications they should seek professional help for their child.

Parents should discuss options with their pediatrician. Dr. Krenz suggests looking into therapy before choosing the route of medication. It is also important to consider that anxiety often coexists with other mental health conditions, including depression. While anxiety is a pervasive issue among children and teenagers, parents should be encouraged that there are many effective coping skills and resources to help their child.

If your child needs help with coping, anxiety or mental health issues, these resources are available at Children’s of Alabama :

  • Behavioral Health unit general number – 205-638-9193
  • Psychiatric Intake Response Center – 205-638-PIRC
  • CHIPS (Children’s Hospital Intervention & Prevention Services) Center – 205-638-2751
  • Amelia Center (for grieving children and teens) – 205-638-7481
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