Age-Appropriate Strategies for Taming Anxiety
First, know that some anxiety is a normal part of early childhood. “It is quite typical for preschool-aged children to show some hesitation, or anxiety, in new situations,” says Kim Painter, licensed psychologist and family therapist in Summit, N.J. Whether the stressor is a new teacher, a new preschool class or a new food, most children will “warm up” over time. The time required varies widely from kid to kid, says Painter. Some children need to be exposed to something new only a couple of times for anxiety to fade, while others might need up to 10 experiences with something or someone to feel comfortable. Parents can soothe an anxious tot by remaining calm themselves. Brief statements of encouragement are fine, but excessive reassurance only serves to “grow” the anxiety. It’s important to note that you can’t save a child from experiencing some anxiety, says Painter. “Don’t walk on eggshells to try to prevent it. Instead, help a child face it.”
As children enter elementary and middle school, their social world grows — and so can anxiety about friendships, crushes and family relationships. The school years present specific situations that can stir up anxiety, says Painter. “In middle school, students try to find where they fit in socially, and academic demands increase. This is uncharted territory for most children. They’re expected to do more with more independence.” Family conflict can be especially stressful for school-age children, who are just beginning to understand relationship dynamics. Parental feuds and high-conflict divorces can fuel anxiety that negatively affects a child’s schoolwork, social life, sleep and overall well-being, says attorney Nadia A. Margherio of Sodoma Law in Charlotte. “Talking negatively about the other parent can cause serious anxiety, stress and social problems.” Minimize social stress by maintaining open communication, and when conflicts arise, never bad-mouth the other party.
For teens, changing bodies and churning hormones aren’t the only things upping the anxiety ante, says Painter. Increasing academic demands, peer pressure and concerns about fitting in socially can all add up to extra angst. Anxiety is normal for teenagers, and experiencing some anxiousness from time to time is part of growing up. Occasional anxiety over something like a poor grade or a relationship problem is called “typical anxiety,” and it’s just that — typical. But if your teen experiences intense, frequent bouts of worry and nerves that affect schoolwork, relationships or work, it might be time to consult with a licensed psychologist. Anxiety-related mental illness often begins during the teen years. Social Anxiety Disorder, which affects 15 million adults, typically appears around age 13. The good news: Anxiety is treatable, notes Painter. “With the appropriate help and support, overly anxious teens can get back to living a healthy life.”
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.